Video tower usage policies vary
In wake of tragedy, some videographers seek uniform guidelines for tower safety
Hydraulic scissor lifts, used for observing and videotaping practices, have hovered above college and NFL fields for decades. Yet a uniform set of safety standards for them doesn't exist.
Declan Sullivan, 20, died Wednesday after the scissor lift he was filming from at Notre Dame fell down amid winds gusting more than 50 mph -- about twice the gust-level under which the equipment is recommended for use. Indiana's workplace safety agency is investigating the incident.
Video directors, as well as college and NFL officials contacted Thursday by ESPN.com, said the hydraulic scissor lift, which can extend to 50 feet, is gradually being phased out as more teams move toward permanent structures for video crews. High winds and foul weather also have become less an issue as more major college and pro teams build indoor practice facilities. But at least a few video directors are advocating for concrete guidelines in the wake of the Notre Dame incident.
NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello said pro teams are "mindful'' to abide by the wind ratings that come with the equipment and are often positioned to head indoors for practice if need be. As an example, New England Patriots spokesman Stacey James said the team has a permanent camera positioned at its practice facility, though it also uses a sideline scissors lift. When weather turns bad, the team will move its practice to inside its field house.
At the college level, officials said the deadly accident at Notre Dame has brought safety into focus. The latest incident also raises questions about who ultimately makes the call on the safety of filming from elevated platforms, whether programs have written guidelines in place to address this and related questions.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a news conference Thursday that every sport coach makes his or her own videotaping decisions related to weather concerns. On Tuesday, Notre Dame's football team practiced in its indoor facility, the Loftus Sports Center, because of the blustery conditions. "In football, there are a series of issues that are different than the ones rowing encounters, or soccer, or somebody else," he said. "Those [decisions] are made within each athletic program based on its experience."
Gene Smith, longtime athletic director at Ohio State, said he doesn't think most schools have a uniform departmental policy when it comes to videotaping in certain types of weather. "I'd be shocked if you found an athletic department that uses scissors for filming in football where they say, 'If the wind is 30 mph you don't put them up.' That would be someone with some very good forward thinking.''
Ohio State used three or four rented hydraulic lifts prior to this season, Smith said, when the university completed a $5 million renovation of its football practice fields. The project included three new lighted fields, as well as four permanent towers on which cameras can be placed.
Smith suggested the decision on when to pull cameras off a lift during inclement weather is often jointly made by a coach and the video director, adding: "Maybe not necessarily the head coach, but one of the assistants who is the liaison to the video area making the decision. It's 'Hey, what do you think?' That kind of thing.''
Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson said conference video directors had sent a string of e-mails Thursday calling attention to the accident and to advocate for formal guidelines and training. The e-mail referenced a mobile platform collapse at Colorado State in 2000, when the videographer suffered broken ribs.
The recommendations called for, among other things, creation of a plan of action for administrators, coaches and video directors on dealing with weather and safety concerns. It also referenced the need for a communications system to deal with dangerous weather systems when they arise.
"Obviously, this is going to now generate [safety] campus policies,'' Benson sad. "I would imagine to some extent they have something. We have never done anything from a conference-wide perspective. We do coordinate with our video people in terms of best practices, game-day minimums and how they video games.
"From a safety standpoint, I doubt we have ever had any discussion of it.''
Video colleagues were stunned to see the incident happen at Notre Dame, where video director Tim Collins is regarded among the best in the business. Collins is in his 20th season heading up the school's video department and is one of the founding members of the Collegiate Sports Video Association.
The 20-year-old Sullivan served under Collins' tutelage, and friends said he was taking the student's death hard. "He has been there a long time, a real pioneer and friend of mine,'' said Doug Osumi, the video director at San Jose State. "People that have talked to him say he totally imploded from this whole thing.''
Osumi is one of the video directors calling for clear, tough safety standards.
"It is one of those things where people are becoming aware of the need to have more standards across the board,'' Osumi said. "I don't think there is. All I know is our facilities department made sure everyone goes through lift training and safety. It doesn't say, 'If these winds speeds are such, come down.' And wind changes so quickly in some areas. It is hard to standardize those things.
"But one of the things we need to talk about is how do we tell a coach or administrator that we need to get down? Like a kid freaks out, 'Listen, I see lightning or it's getting too cold for me.' How does that stop the coach from saying, 'No, stay up there.'
"A lot depends on the relationship with the coach. A video person making X amount of dollars ain't gonna sit there and tell the head coach who is making millions of dollars a year, 'Hey, we're gonna do something else.' It has to be a department thing, a chain of communications between the coach, athletic director, video director, where everyone understands what is done in certain situations.''
At the University of Oregon, where the well-financed athletic program has an indoor practice facility, video director Steve Pohl doesn't often find himself working in heavy winds or driving rain. Most of the filming platforms are permanent, though a hydraulic scissor lift is used early in fall practice. Only twice in his 15 years there has the weather been so bad he had to come down from a platform, and both times he made the call.
Pohl said representatives of the lift company meet with his staff annually to discuss safety issues. In addition, he said the equipment has built-in warning systems that alert to when the weather is unsafe.
"We follow the [wind] mph set up by manufacturer,'' said Pohl, former president of the Collegiate Sports Video Association. "But if you need to figure out if you need a wind gauge, then it is too windy. That is the principle we take.
"Obviously, we communicate with the coach. But again, if you're debating whether it is getting too windy, we should come down. It is a moot point.''
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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