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Masts claim third victim

For the third time in a month, an accident involving an electronic newsgathering (ENG) van has hospitalized a local TV staffer. On May 27, KGAN(TV) Iowa City, Iowa, news photographer Peter McNaughton was injured when the mast on the van he was operating struck a 115,000-volt overhead power line.

McNaughton was listed first in critical condition, then upgraded to serious early last week, with burns on his left leg and the back of his head, the station reported.

The accident followed by less than a week a similar one that injured three people in Hollywood. A photographer and policeman suffered minor injuries, but KABC-TV reporter Adrienne Alpert continues to fight for her life, having undergone several surgeries in a Los Angeles burn center. In early May, three staffers from WTTG(TV) Washington, D.C., suffered significant but not life-threatening injuries while reporting a story in a Virginia suburb.

Los Angeles chapters of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians have raised concerns about van and other safety issues in talks with stations (B & C, May 29).

Given the extent of the possible damage, kgan General Manager Mike Moran said, "I think the people here are counting our blessings," but he is unsure what happened with McNaughton, a 10-year news veteran who has been with this station for about a year.

Alpert suffered fourth-degree burns covering a quarter of her body. KABC-TV reported mid-week that she remained in critical but stable condition after the amputation of her left arm at the elbow and the middle finger on her right hand; the index finger on that hand and her right foot were also at risk of amputation last week.

The station has been providing regular updates on the popular newswoman's condition and promoting a blood drive on her behalf. Alpert has been reported in good spirits despite the devastating injuries. Last Monday, TV news photographers from every station in the city circled the Grossman Burn Center where Alpert is being treated, in a show of support.

The year 2000 has already seen more mast-related tragedies than any year in recent memory, safety expert Mark Bell said.

Things had been relatively calm since 1997, when 24-year-old WABG-TV Greenwood, Miss., Production Manager Andrew Austin died after he was electrocuted when setting up for a live shot outside of a local City Hall. Also that year, WOI-TV Des Moines, Iowa, reporters Kimberly Arms and David Bingham were preparing a live shot when their mast struck a power line, severely injuring both.

Lawsuits against the equipment companies-filed by Arms and settled earlier this year and filed by Bingham this year-have already led to manufacturers' being more likely to offer alarms and other avoidance features on their ENG vans. And some stations have resolved to include such devices in their new vehicles. Bell claimed that training and reinforcement of safety lessons will be more effective than equipment in making technicians and reporters routinely safety-conscious.

Kgan said last week that its employees undergo thorough training, with written and practical tests by the station's engineers. The station maintains its own training manual, which is frequently updated.

But, noting an absence of financial incentive to mandate the time and expense of training, Bell questioned the commitment of many station owners. Worker-compensation systems typically limit employer liability while guaranteeing payments for employees' medical care and lost wages, making van makers the principal targets of the recent lawsuits. Lawyers noted, however, that an injured third party, drawn to the TV van or just passing by at the time of an accident, could bring an action against stations or their owners.

AFTRA, NABET, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees invited stations to meet last week and address ENG and other safety issues. According to AFTRA, however, only Tribune-owned KTLA(TV) and Chris-Craft's KCOP(TV) attended. Whereas the unions want a uniform, marketwide set of safety standards, some stations told the union they prefer to address the issue on an individual basis, AFTRA said.