automatic monitoring of towers

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). 
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There are times that the FCC, though its Daily Releases, appears to be trying to make a point.  And Friday was one of those days, when it simultaneously released four separate orders, each fining the owner of a tower used for communications purposes for failures to maintain the required tower lights on those towers.  Three of the fines were for $8000, and one for $6000, and three were against broadcasters and one was against a non-broadcast licensee.  The facts of each of the cases are slightly different – but together they make clear that the FCC demands that tower lights be maintained in operating condition, and will take few excuses for the failure of those lights to remain operational during required operating hours.

Two of the cases are particularly instructive as to the strict liability of the tower owner.  In one case, the owner of the tower argued that it should not be fined, as it maintained a system to monitor tower lights, a system that had just been inspected and found to be in operating condition a few days before the FCC inspection which discovered that a light was out on the tower.  Such monitoring systems are permitted by the rules as a substitute for daily visual monitoring of a tower’s lights.  However, the FCC found that the station was not being fined for the failure to monitor the tower lights (as that obligation was met through the automatic monitoring system), but instead for the failure of the lights to be lit –a strict liability standard seems to be used to justify the fine.
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FCC tower lighting and marking violations are among those treated most seriously by the FCC, given their potential for tragedy should there be an incident with an aircraft due to improper tower maintenance.  Today, in two Notices of Apparent liability, the FCC proposed fines against tower owners for such violations.  In one case, where the

Operating a communications tower can always lead to issues, but two recent FCC decisions give tower owners some degree of relief. In one decision, the Commission’s Audio Services Division rejected a petition filed against the construction of new facilities for an AM station in Wasilla, Alaska – rejecting claims that the FCC’s RF radiation standards were not strict enough to protect local residents. In another case, the FCC determined that towers using an automatic system to monitor tower lighting – the “RMS system" – did not need to physically inspect the lights on the tower every quarter, as now required, but instead could do so annually, and set up an expedited system for approving tower owners who want to take advantage of this flexibility. 

The first case, dealing with RF radiation, may be dismissed by some as just a decision stating the obvious – that a station that complies with the FCC’s RF radiation standards should be allowed to be constructed. But it is not always so simple. We have had clients face situations in many areas around the country where local residents complained about a new broadcast facility – blaming it for everything from the failures of electronic equipment to the health problems of nearby residents. Various organizations have espoused theories that the FCC’s RF standards are insufficient to protect the public, and their theories are often publicized through the Internet. And sometimes, these complaints can be brought to local elected officials who, not wanting to anger local voters, try to make an issue out of what should be a fairly straightforward analysis.


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The FCC last week issued an order fining a broadcast  tower owner $2000 for failure to monitor the lights on its tower.  The FCC requires that a tower owner either monitor the tower by visual inspection or by a properly installed automatic monitoring system, at least once every 24 hours.  In this case, the tower owner