Van accident rings union safety alarms

Los Angeles-area AFTRA and NABET chapters have asked broadcasters for an emergency meeting "to address ongoing safety concerns of members." The request follows an accident in which the mast on kabc-tv's electronic news-gathering (ENG) van hit a power line, severely injuring reporter Adrienne Albert.

Among the unions' proposals: requiring more than one technician on a shoot and continuing training. AFTRA said it hopes to sit down with the broadcast employers this week.

Albert was reporting a story on car-safety seats for children when the mast struck a 34,000-volt wire. The shock exploded the microwave antenna and rocked the van, throwing her from the vehicle and causing the engine compartment to explode into flames.

Witnesses suggested that Albert may have started to leave the vehicle. Safety experts say she would have been safer inside the van.

According to one eyewitness, the problem might have been in the angle of the mast. The van had just driven up on the curb, KNX-AM reporter Diane Thompson said, to avoid the electrical wires. "It was parked on a driveway, on a slant. Had the mast gone straight up, it would have avoided the wires."

A similar accident involving a WTTG(TV) Washington truck a few weeks before injured three people, though none as seriously as Albert. That station said its future vans will have equipment that can reduce the risk of such accidents.

Use of such equipment is likely to grow. In February, WIOI(TV) Ames, Iowa, reporter Kimberly Arms, badly burned when the mast of her station's news van hit a power line, settled a lawsuit against several van manufacturers for an undisclosed sum. Arms' lawsuit attempted to hold the manufacturers accountable for not providing such equipment as alarms to warn of the proximity of power lines. Mark Bell, who writes and teaches about ENG, notes that more vans were displaying alarms as a standard but removable feature at the recent NAB show.

But Bell believes that stations are not providing sufficient training. Noting that, in many states, worker's compensation limits the financial exposure of station owners and other employers, he believes that a lack of training is consistent with the lack of financial risk: "There's no deterrence."

Remarkably, the KABC-TV incident was captured on video by KRCA(TV) photographer Giovanni Solano, setting up for a shoot. Viewing the video, Bell says, he counted 17 wires near the van. He believes that reporters working under pressure are sometimes willing to risk or compromise safety to save time.

KABC-TV general manager Arnold Kleiner would not discuss the safety equipment on the station's van or the extent of training given at the Disney-owned station. "This has the potential of becoming a legal issue," he said.

Late last week, Albert was reported in stable but still critical condition at the Grossman Burn Center.

Station photographer Heather MacKenzie and Los Angeles policeman Patrick Beighley were also injured but were treated and released Monday from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.