Earlier this week, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau released an Order approving a consent decree with Scripps Broadcasting where Scripps agreed to pay a penalty of $1,130,000 for perceived violations of the FCC’s rules requiring tower light monitoring for towers used by a number of TV stations that it had recently purchased. The company also agreed to adopt numerous procedures to insure continuing compliance, including notification to the FCC of future issues. The FCC began the investigation when a plane crashed into one station’s tower. While the FCC specifically states that it did not find any evidence that any of the “irregularities” in the tower monitoring process contributed to the plane crash, the crash opened the door to the FCC’s investigation of the company’s tower light monitoring process at all of its stations, leading to this fine. Are you ready for such an investigation?
In the consent decree, the Commission cites various tower-related FCC rules that must be observed by tower owners. The rules include Section 17.47(a), which requires antenna structure owners to monitor the status of a structure’s lighting system by either (1) making “an observation of the antenna structure’s lights at least once each 24 hours either visually or by observing an automatic properly maintained indicator designed to register any failure of such lights” or (2) by “provid[ing] and properly maintain[ing] an automatic alarm system designed to detect any failure of such lights and to provide indication of such failure to the owner.” That rule also requires that the tower owner inspect any automatic monitoring system at least once every 3 months to make sure that it is working correctly, unless the owner is using a system certified as reliable and not requiring such inspection by the Wireless Bureau of the FCC (see our articles here and here where FCC fines were issued when monitoring systems did not alert the tower owner of tower lighting issues).
The rules also require that the tower owner keep records of the required monitoring, including any instances where any required lighting is not operating (noting when the outage occurred and when it was repaired, and when FAA notice was provided). The FCC rules also require prompt notification to the FAA when certain lights have stopped operating – obviously so that the FAA can notify aircraft operating in the vicinity of the tower.
Part 17 of the rules also sets out painting requirements for towers, and requirements that many towers be registered with the FCC. In fact, in the Scripps case, part of the fine was based on Scripps’ failure to notify the FCC of the ownership change of some of the towers as required by the FCC tower registration rules (see our posts here and here about other fines for this violation).
One article like this cannot possibly set out all the tower lighting, painting, and monitoring rules. But the severity of the sanctions in this case demonstrates the obvious importance of these rules – and the need for each broadcaster to carefully review these rules and make sure that they are strictly complying with all of the requirements. Because of the safety risks, the FCC takes tower maintenance requirements very seriously (see our post here where we wrote about a notification from the FCC to tower owners that paying penalties was “not just a cost of doing business” but much more serious). Even companies that are merely leasing tower space have responsibilities to notify the FCC and FAA if their lessor is not performing its responsibilities to maintain the tower (see our post here). The risk of non-compliance is not only penalties like the one assessed in this case, but also potential civil liability in cases where there are incidents like the situation that started the investigation. Take your responsibilities seriously.