ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
by Tom Stoppel
The Free Press
Mark Hamit doesn’t think he’s better than other people, but he does have a tendency to look down them as he goes about his work.
That’s because Hamit is tower foreman for Hayden Tower Service Inc. of Topeka and routinely spends his days anywhere from 220 feet to 500 feet above ground.
“I’d rather be on top of the tower than on the ground because I’m keeping busy and getting things done,” Hamit said. “It’s also nice and peaceful, plus I’m away from everyone else.”
Hamit and his crew recently completed work on a 220-foot tower for Cellular One 21/2 miles west of Hillsboro along U.S. Highway 56.
For the past eight years, Hamit has worked for the Topeka-based company that erects anywhere from 75 to 150 towers across the country each year.
“We build mostly cellular phone towers,” Hamit said. “But last year we did build a tower for the Kansas Department of Transportation and we’ll do a couple more for them this year for their communications needs.”
Last year, Hamit and his crew constructed towers all the way from Sheridan, Wyo., to Greensboro, N.C. and points in between.
“We can usually build a single tower in about two weeks,” Hamit said. “That’s a turn-key job, all the way from erecting the tower and all the hookups to building the fence around the site when we’re finished.”
Although some companies erect towers as tall as 1,200 to 1,800 feet, Hamit said Hayden Tower limits its projects to 500 feet.
Crew members are trained in the latest safety techniques but also must pass a rigorous indoctrination to tower climbing.
“When the guys for our crew are first hired, they go through training, then they’re taken out on a tower in back of our office and have to climb it to see if they’re cut out for this job,” Hamit said.
Starting pay varies, depending on skills and prior experience. But general hands begin at $10 per hour. Those with a commercial driver’s license earn an extra dollar per hour bonus.
Workers with prior tower-climbing experience are offered additional pay.
Once an unassembled tower is on site, it’s time for Hamit and his crew to begin construction.
“The first thing we do when we get to the job is to stack the steel, or erect the tower,” Hamit said. “What we do is stand a 60-foot stub-or the lower 60 feet of the tower-and them plumb and tension it so it’s square.”
Once the stub is in place, the next step requires a winch and gin pole.
“The winch consists of two lines-one goes to the middle of the gin pole and the other one is on the face of the tower which takes the gin pole up and down the tower. The one that goes to the middle is the one that brings the sections up the tower,” Hamit said. “Each section is 20 feet in length.”
Guy wires are attached to the tower about every 60 feet for stability.
“You use a transit and plumb and tension so it’s square,” Hamit said. “After the antenna is erected we put on the antennas and booms, the safety climbs and safety lights if they need them.”
The guy wires are tightened to guidelines that are based on the temperature when the tower is erected.
Towers have a built in “flex,” or movement, of only 2 inches at the top on a tower of 500 feet or less.
Crew members are versed in the safety procedures as well as having qualified personnel on site at all times.
“We do have a safety system that we always use,” Hamit said of the workers who trek up and down the towers. “We have a ‘D’ harness that clips to the cable that allows you to go up without resistance. But if you slip, you only fall about 6 inches.
“Our company has never had a worker fall off of a tower.”
Other safety precautions include a watchful eye on weather conditions.
“We don’t go up in any winds that are over 30 mph,” Hamit said. “I have a wind meter that tells me the speed. Hopefully, on those days we have a lot of ground work to keep us busy.
“We also won’t go up if there’s any rain or snow or something else that Mother Nature hands out.”
Providing the weather affords dry conditions, workers climb regardless of the temperature.
“We were in Nebraska last winter and worked on a tower when it was 19 degrees below zero,” Hamit said. “The towers are made of galvanized steel so they get pretty hot in the summer and cold in the winter.”
Workers also wear gloves for protection.
“It’s probably harder to work when it’s cold, though, because your hands get cold-plus, you’re all bundled up and it makes it hard to maneuver,” he added.
While being physical fit isn’t required for tower climbers, it makes their job a lot easier.
“You do have to be in fairly good shape, but I’m 43 and a smoker and really don’t have any problems,” Hamit said.
“I do know it’s a lot harder to climb up a tower than down because you’re pulling your own body weight up, plus we carry as much as 20 pounds of tools and equipment up with us.”
How long it takes to climb a tower depends on the individual.
“Some guys can climb up and down a 330-foot tower in as little as 30 minutes,” Hamit said.
Once on top of the tower, vertical travel is limited with the use of cables and radio communication.
“We have a winch that lifts supplies to the top,” he said. “We also have radios that we talk on from the top of the tower to the bottom so we know what to send up.”
Hamit said it’s a special feeling to eat lunch while perched on top of a 500-foot tower.
“I really like eating up there, it’s just so peaceful,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll send a McDonald’s meal or a Pepsi and a Snickers up to the workers.”
Hamit, who met his spouse while erecting a tower in Quincy, Ill., said his wife knows the safety regulations that protect her husband, but worries nevertheless.
“She likes to talk to me every night just so she knows I’m still alive,” he said with a chuckle.
As a paratrooper in the airborne infantry, Hamit said heights have never been an obstacle for him.
“I never imagined I’d do this for a living, but it really isn’t that big of a deal,” he said. “When you’re on top of a 500-foot tower, I really don’t even give it a thought that I’m that high. I just focus on the job I’m up there to do.”
Hamit said he’s never had even one close call or harrowing experience, but knows the best way to keep his safety record in tact is to follow safety regulations.
“This is a great job and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “To me, it’s just as safe a job as about anything else I can think of.”