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LOS ANGELES

Inspection Rule on News Vans Relaxed

Safety: State panel backs away from quarterly vehicle checks after protest by ABC TV, which said proposal might cost too much.

September 19, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the urging of ABC TV, state officials have toned down safety rules prompted by a news van accident that nearly killed KABC-TV reporter Adrienne Alpert.

Tough safety standards and frequent inspections of television trucks equipped with microwave masts were proposed earlier this year by the state's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

Officials said the new rules--the nation's first--would prevent news reporters and photographers from accidentally raising van antennas into overhead power lines.

Alpert was severely burned in 2000 when she stepped out of a news van after its microwave mast had been raised into a 19,980-volt power line along Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

News vans beam microwave signals from antenna masts as high as 70 feet to relay pictures from news scenes to broadcast stations.

There are an estimated 1,000 news vans in California. Experts have warned that each has the potential to kill hundreds if their antennas touch overhead lines at a crowded news event, such as the start of a marathon race.

The proposed safety rules would require the trucks to be equipped with "constant pressure" mast-raising switches that would force technicians to press a button while standing where they can see the antenna rising.

Vans also would be equipped with carpenter-style levels to show whether they are parked at a slant, which could cause a mast to lean into power lines.

Other requirements would include safety manuals, warning signs, lights that illuminate the mast at night and an audible alarm that would sound if the van is driven with the antenna up.

Cal/OSHA officials initially proposed requiring quarterly field inspections of news vans to guarantee that the safety devices were in place. But that part of the recommendation has been dropped, officials said Wednesday.

Joseph Mannetta, director of health and safety for ABC Inc., protested to Cal/OSHA that the inspections were unnecessary and would "unintentionally cause logistical and potential financial hardships to the news-gathering abilities of broadcast entities in California." His company supports the other recommendations, he said.

As a compromise, state officials are now proposing that van checks be yearly instead of quarterly. Board members will vote on the regulations Oct. 17 in Sacramento, officials said.

Broadcast unions have endorsed the tougher inspection requirement. Some say that pressure to quickly set up cameras and cover breaking news has led to the disconnection of safety switches, allowing microwave masts to be raised unattended while photographers and reporters set up live shots.

The manufacturer of the mast used on Alpert's KABC-TV news van has asserted that its safety switch was intentionally bypassed. "Somebody took the springs out. I saw it with my own eyes," said Steven Pinkley, a manager of the Will-Burt Co. of Ohio.

Alpert, a popular figure among competing reporters in Los Angeles, suffered third-degree burns that forced the amputation of her lower right leg, left forearm, part of her left foot and several fingers from her right hand when she "grounded" herself, and the electric current surged from the TV truck and through her.

Strict safety rules, including van inspections every three months, have been supported by most Los Angeles TV news personalities. Patrick Healy of KNBC-TV, Ron Olsen of KTLA-TV, Jane Yamamoto of KTTV-TV, Pat Harvey of KCAL-TV and Drew Griffin of KCBS-TV are among more than six dozen who have written letters demanding the regulations. Two dozen news van operators from KABC-TV signed a petition backing the rules.

Rick Chambers, news anchor for KCOP-TV, urged state regulators to strengthen the rules even further so that all TV newsroom workers "understand the risks the crews face in getting news stories."

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