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26 minutes

As the demand for broadband and mobile data grows exponentially, so does the need for broadband jobs in every part of the Internet ecosystem—from the hoodie-wearing coders in coffee shops writing software to the tower climbers who deploy cell sites to the manufacturers who make steel towers and equipment. But no matter how high the demand for service, safety and proper training must always be front and center. Evan is joined by Duane MacEntee, Executive Director of the National Wireless Safety Alliance. They discuss the safety, certification, and coordination initiatives for tower climbers. In the past, far too many climbers suffered injuries, or, in the worst cases, paid with their lives. How did the industry get from the dark times of the past to the national safety and certification standards used today? What lessons can be learned and, as the race to 5G heats up, what new education initiatives are coming down the pike? (Disclaimer)


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to more than seven dirty words. The official FCC podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber. As the demand for broadband and mobile data grows exponentially so does the need for broadband jobs in every part of the Internet ecosystem—from the coders in coffee shops wearing hoodies writing software to the tower climbers who deploy cell sites to the manufacturers who make steel towers and equipment. We've talked about tower climbing on a previous episode with the women of NATE, and, no matter how high the demand for service, safety and proper training must always be front and center. Joining me to discuss safety and training in the wireless community is Duane MacEntee, Executive Director of the National Wireless Safety Alliance. Duane thanks for joining.

MR. MACENTEE: Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So Duane I always start off the show the same way: how did you get into this space? What's your background?

MR. MACENTEE: I started in the industry approximately will be 20 years next year actually. I came into the wireless sector as a member of a team that owned towers and we came in and at that point tower ownership was relatively new in terms of its own segment of the industry. So I was privileged to work with a company that grew as did the industry and over the years engineering has been kind of my prominent background, engineering, manufacturing and managing field crews and various aspects but then I got into law. And so now I'm an attorney representing construction contractors in this industry.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well that's good because I always say there's a shortage of lawyers in the telecom space so it's good that you can help address that shortage. So what is NWSA? For the uninitiated who are not familiar with the group: briefly, what does it do?

MR. MACENTEE: Okay, so the National Wireless Safety Alliance is an organization that was formed to create assessment tools, basically tests and examinations that are based upon what the industry says is the baseline of knowledge and skill required for technicians to perform work. So we're an independent organization, a nonprofit that is intended to make sure that workers who come through either new to the industry or existing workers to level set the playing field if you will to make sure that there's a baseline of proficiency in the industry. And that work is performed safely. Safety is a big part of our credentialing process.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And when you describe it that way it sounds like such an obvious thing that should almost exist in every single industry in the world. But part of the point of NWSA is that this wasn't always obvious. And I've had the pleasure of talking to some of you and your colleagues and often people referred to the pre NWSA days as something of a dark age for the industry. Not necessarily everything is bad but you know in terms of safety and there were some issues, and that helped inspire the genesis of the organization. So can you briefly touch on what things were like that kind of inspired you guys to put this thing together.

MR. MACENTEE: Sure maybe a little bit of walk down my own personal memory lane might help a little bit. As I mentioned I'm coming up on my 20th year in the industry and I've seen quite an evolution frankly. My kids always tell me: dad when you say back in the day we shut you off. But back in the day, there was really kind of a segregation of industry sectors. You had carriers who had deployment plans, you had tower owners that were kind of new in terms of as a business entity enterprise tower ownership, you had certainly contractors large medium and small and they weren't always collaborating around what was needed. Unfortunately what that could result in is a mismatch of expectation in terms of rapid schedule, cost, quality control issues, but more importantly it drove kind of a not completely Katie bar the door, but it was kind of an issue of safety, a big issue of safety, in the sense that when we say Dark Ages I'd rather say there were dark times that existed. Yeah we underwent quite a rapid pace at one point and unfortunately many people paid with their lives in the sense of workers climbing towers and going back probably oh I would say certainly prior to 2013-2014 we were seeing way too many fatalities occurring in this industry.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And to the extent that you're comfortable discussing I know it's obviously a sensitive topic and almost everyone in this industry knows somebody or is familiar with a bad story. But was there a particular watershed moment or wakeup call that was kind of like the last straw that really got everyone together and said we need to make NWSA.

MR. MACENTEE: Sure. Unfortunately yes the answer is yes there was a moment. It was more of an aggregated view of the industry back around 2013 and in the years surrounding 2013—that time frame, one or two years in front or back of that. We had a lot of fatalities and it garnered a lot of in my opinion proper attention by authority. You know the fatality rate was very high. At one point, we were labeled as the most dangerous industry in the U.S. You don't want to be number one in that regard.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: You don't always want to be number one in everything, right?

MR. MACENTEE: That's right. So what that forced was industry leadership. We're talking serious industry leadership at a very high level with the carriers, major contractors, and small contractors, tower owners alike came together in 2013 in Dallas and had what was known and what is known as a safety summit. And it was really the first time that collectively everybody got together representing multiple sectors of the industry to speak openly and honestly about what is needed in terms of changing that dynamic. NWSA is an outcropping of that, you know the idea of having a workforce that could be relied upon to, number one, you have assurance that some level of training, acceptable level of training has been performed regardless of where it came from that it is actually what's needed, that proficiency is incorporated into that. So you know the industry views safety, quality, and proficiency of performance all in the same kind of bucket if you will. You can't have a good job if it's not the right quality or if you're not getting it done on time and certainly not if somebody’s not coming home right. So, key requirement of doing a good job is that you do it on time with quality that’s expected and no one gets hurt.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right and part of the issue maybe in the past was that there were some companies that were training folks properly but because it's such a rapid-pace industry and people are constantly moving around to different jobs there was no real way of knowing that if someone comes from one company, do I know what those training practices were? Am I trustworthy of those practices? Do I have to retrain the person because maybe they got a certificate that was specific to that company? But now when they need to travel across the country to do a job somewhere else, where's the communication? Was that something that was fairly common in the past that this alliance is hoping to address?

MR. MACENTEE: It certainly was and to a certain degree still exists today, and we are trying to address that. There is an inconsistency. And you mentioned something, there was a lot of movement. There were a lot of you know as a deployment takes place as infrastructure rolls out and we're going to see it again with the fifth generation of wireless coming online over the coming years. We expect to see an uplift in activity again. With that come opportunities, right, you have workforce opportunities, people have career pathways and whatnot but it also means that it can be a fast and furious pace and we want to make sure that you know there's a standard that's created that is met by the workforce to deliver the product that's needed in a safe and quality manner. But yeah there are many, there were many certifications, I call them certificates, that were issued. In the training community, like anything else, there's a large population. There are some that are better than others. But with respect to the training that was delivered to any particular worker there was really no way of verifying the quality of that training, that it met a certain threshold that the industry expected. What the NWSA hopefully serves is that mechanism for independently assessing and validating that that worker at that period of time they take a test or an exam has met a minimum threshold of knowledge and skill.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And the difference there is that you are not just a single company that is determining the credentials. It is an independent body and it's kind of a portable certificate. If I have an NWSA certificate from working you know in one region of the country I can safely assume that if I go somewhere else and they see the certificate they understand what that means. And just for the listeners who are thinking: what is certifications, sort of like what are you certifying? Can you briefly describe some of the certifications that NWSA does and what that practically means from a worker perspective if they have this thing? What skills do they have?

MR. MACENTEE: OK. Yes I can. So let me back up just a moment. So a certification program is more of an assurance of a general baseline of understanding of knowledge and skill, all right. A certificate is more specific to a task. So what NWSA endeavors to do is create certifications that go to a professional who have demonstrated a broader knowledge of skills and ability. So that's the starting point. But over the course of the last, let’s see, at the end of 2016 we launched our first two programs the Telecommunication Tower Technician 1 and Telecommunication Tower Technician 2, we like to say TTT-1 and TTT-2 just because it rolls off the tongue a little bit easier.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I like to say triple T-1 and triple T-2.

MR. MACENTEE: Yeah that works even better. And then just recently there's just this past January we launched two more certifications. We launched a specialist certification for antenna and line installation and servicing and also a tower foreman certification which is designed kind of as the third leg of the stool in a field crew context. You have various levels on the crew. The foreman is actually the person who's the supervisor in charge of a particular site while work is going on.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right and it's what fascinates me about this system is that it actually kind of shows you the career opportunity in the training and the certification you can see, you know, where you might be headed. So, you know correct me if I'm wrong, but a TTT-1 they've gotten some baseline understanding of a variety of different skills, they've climbed a certain height so they're not afraid of heights. You know, TTT-2 you’re now maybe able to supervise the TTT-1s and bring them up to speed and then of course with a foreman you can maybe manage an entire crew and that's not just a safety thing, that's not just a training thing, that's a career thing. You can kind of see where this is going so that it's not just a job it's a career. And the more I train and the more experience I get the greater the opportunity.

MR. MACENTEE: That's right. And it's important to note that the NWSA is a component of a much larger industry initiative in terms of workforce development. You know there are others that quite frankly we share resources there's a limited pool of what we call subject matter experts who participate in developing these certifications. And when I say limited number we have a broad number that actually come in the room representing carriers, tower owners, contractors of all different sizes. We have some lawyers in the room and educators as well. So it's actually a pretty good section, cross-section. But what that represents is that some of those same people are on kind of the front end of workforce development as well in terms of setting the definitional components of what is a technician one, what is a technician two, and a lot of them follow the DOL/ETA guidelines in terms, that's the Education and Training administration's guidelines on apprenticeship development/career path development. So we follow that kind of scheme to come into workforce development. Then the curriculum is developed through an arm of that of the industry, TIRAP. You've heard of TIRAP before.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah that's the Department of Labor's apprenticeship program specifically for the tower industry.

MR. MACENTEE: And so their role in this is they're on the front end of that process helping define what are the components that need to be taught to that to a worker in that particular role that's been defined by DOL. Then it goes into the training community, agnostic of whichever trainer, whether it's an in-house employer training program, a third party training company, a community college or technical college providing the training that really isn't the issue for us as a certification body once the individual is trained they can see a pathway now. There's a ladder that they can climb, so to speak. No pun intended I suppose but maybe there is. But in that regard they can look at certifications that allowed them to grow into the industry and those certifications are held independent of any of those prior components that I just shared with you. They need to be because that's what makes us so different in terms of this initiative versus anything that might've been tried in the past in the industry.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right, and that collaboration, you know I got to see it for myself and thank you for inviting me down to Alpharetta, Georgia where NWSA was meeting and it's just incredible when everyone went around the room and introduced themselves. There were people that worked at wireless carriers. There were people that worked at manufacturers. There were people that worked just in the safety space you know with you. There were folks that worked as climbers and it was interesting to see the different facets of the organization all sitting in a room and hammering this stuff out. And it also speaks to the camaraderie you know. Recently, NATE, the National Association of Tower Erectors, which is not the same thing as NWSA, NATE is a trade group. They released a video talking about this band of brothers mentality that's maybe not something that would be obvious to anyone that hasn't climbed a tower or hasn't engaged in what could be potentially a dangerous job. But with the right safety is less dangerous. But is that something that you experience in NWSA when you're sitting around a room. Does everyone have like a personal connection to safety issues?

MR. MACENTEE: Typically, yes. And without getting into too much detail because of sensitivity to some of this. But I would say the majority of people that are volunteering thousands of hours, countless hours of time volunteering to develop these programs and implement them, there's been some connection to either knowing someone who has unfortunately had a bad incident having maybe experienced it for themselves having fallen or something then they survived it but there's typically is a very close connectivity to an issue. While we do focus on the proficiency elements there's no doubt that we are a safety-centric initiative. Everyone is sitting at the table because there's something that they've had happen in their experience.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And in the entire history of this industry which is not new, I mean we're talking about towers I mean we've had broadcast and radio towers and TV towers for a long time. But the industry is obviously changed over the years, we've gone from you know just terrestrial broadcast and radio and TV to you know 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, but you know this has never been done before, the NWSA. So what makes this so different than anything that might have happened in the past with this industry.

MR. MACENTEE: Well the big distinction in my mind is that beside the independence meaning that we're not training, we don't do training, you know actually under the framework of what's called, it’s a standard, ANSI 17024, which is the standard for accreditation of certification programs.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: This is an international accreditation that is not government-led but it's a rigorous process that basically says that internationally now if you've gone through NWSA you're getting some type of credibility there.

MR. MACENTEE: That's right because the standard is actually an International Standards Organization document. But it provides the framework that we followed to assure that our processes are repeatable and that the outcomes from what we're doing is consistent and unbiased. Right. So that's a big kind of a technical distinction. But for the worker, and this is what's really unique about what we're doing now, in the past training would take place at various points maybe a certificate would be issued because somebody passed a climbing course or they might have passed some type of a safety awareness course or something like that and they get cert they would typically get that through their employer organization and if they would leave that employer and go on to the next opportunity that employer that's hiring them in probably wasn't gonna recognize their prior certificates of training because there were a couple of things in play there. Number one they didn't necessarily trust that the prior training met the standards that they have set for themselves in their own organization.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: People are very competitive.

MR. MACENTEE: Very very competitive. But two, there's a problem with efficiency in that right? Now you have a worker that might you know depending upon how many job changes he has or where he goes in the country may have to retrain over and over and over, which, retraining is by and of itself a good thing I don’t have a problem with that. But there was confusion. There was variability in that. So what NWSA endeavors to do is collect this broad audience of subject matter experts to come to consensus around what needs to be certified and create a certification, a professional certification that touches on many aspects of what a technician might expect to be asked of. So that's the distinction. And it's portable to the individual. So when a worker comes in they sit for their exams and they pass they'll be issued a card. What's different about the card is it has one number on it which is a unique number identifying that person and that number tracks with that person for life. So for us it's an identification number for the individual. Any subsequent certifications that they may hold get added into that database and that database is public access. So now it can be verified by any employer or any customer that's out there to see that this individual has achieved certification.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And it's interesting to see the buy in increasing not just from the collaboration and coordination standpoint but we're literally seeing buy in from an economic perspective. I was really interested to talk to folks who've said you know the percentage that is required of certificates or certified employees in a contract is going up and up and up and you're seeing companies because they value safety and safety is important. They're saying we will not work with you unless you've got these folks with these certifications because this is how we can put our money where our mouth is and say that this job ain’t gonna happen unless safety is at the forefront. So that's also an interesting trend. You know not just you know shaking hands and saying we're agreeing on things but literally the economics are starting to shift in that direction as well. And I could speak to the deliberate and meticulous nature of it because when you invited me down I was in a room where they were talking about the questions on the written exam and how we phrased them and will this give an answer away to another question and it was so detailed and so meticulous I totally paid attention the entire time. But I'm not going to reveal any questions here for you those listening who aspire to cheat on the test. But I can just say that you know this was really an interesting process. And the way that they say you know we got to distract them with this potential answer to make sure that they know the true answer it's just it's so detailed and meticulous. And that's partly because you want to get that international credibility and who knows you know maybe you get an NWSA certification here you can work in another country potentially.

MR. MACENTEE: We're really focused on the U.S. at the moment, but that's correct. And we are having discussions with our friends outside of the U.S. border. that might be able to benefit by this as well. I would say also you're absolutely right about the meticulous and deliberate nature of what's going on. But you know we all are educated in certain ways when we get into a new process. I'd never been involved in a test or I should say accredited testing development. There is something, a word that I never heard of called psychometrics and a psychometrician is a person who typically holds an advanced degree in statistics on how to use those statistics to create valid testing instruments and in order to become ANSI accredited under the standard you actually have to put the test through a rigorous statistical analysis to make sure that it's performing the way you intended and you have to maintain it over the course of its lifetime to make sure those questions are still valid down to a question level. It's a little bit like watching paint dry sometimes when you're, but it's so important to recognize that for what it does to the test in terms of validating the veracity and the accuracy of the exam.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah those are things that probably 15 years ago if you had told someone in the tower industry that we need a psychometrician they’d probably be like, “what are you talking about?”

MR. MACENTEE: Sometimes they still do. “What's a psychometrician?”

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. So you know given that we talked so much about this NWSA organization, briefly can you describe you know who's a member? How is it run, you know, how are these decisions being made?

MR. MACENTEE: Sure. Well I would say that we would like to consider them stakeholders. We don't really have membership. We're not an association by design, but we are governed by a board and we have a board of directors and a board of governors. I'll start with the board directors a little bit because that's important to know that there are people at the reins of this organization who have a broad view of which direction the industry is heading and the value that this certification program brings. So we have a seven seat board of directors. It's on our website, all the members I won't take up time today but they represent carriers, tower owners, and contractors and so they're there at the helm if you will. And then we have a 31 seat Board of Governors. Now the governors actually serve a very vital purpose. They are the collectively, and when I say carriers, tower owners, contractors certainly we have those but we also have utilities represented, we have government representation on those seats, we have educators, all looking at what needs to be put into a certification and they have the final buy off when a task force comes together to create a testing scheme. They have, the governors have the final buy off to say yes, collectively as an industry, this is what we will accept as a certification standard for this level in the industry. So it really is a collaborative process to validate that number one we're hitting all the marks we need to at the level we need to and that we're maintaining it properly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Of course that's important because the industry is constantly changing. You know one hundred years ago what is the technology that is being deployed is very different than today and even ten years ago. The technology you know 4G versus 5G it's a very different thing with very different skills that are needed. So you're always going to be looking to update things and how can we create a new certification for this new skill that is now in demand. So it's important to be nimble. But of course meticulous as well. So you know some people listening to this podcast might be interested in getting involved in a job or career path that involves NWSA certification or just in general what's your message to folks that are listening to this? What should they first and foremost take away from this conversation?

MR. MACENTEE: Well to begin with I would say that if you're contemplating coming into this industry it is robust. There's plenty of opportunity. I know many contractors right now today that if they doubled in size in terms of the workforce they still wouldn't be able to keep up with the work that was being presented to them. So there's economic opportunity that exists with that.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: A lot of broadband being deployed.

MR. MACENTEE: And I would also you know ask that folks especially the younger audience that might be listening to this about you know they're contemplating coming in to take a look around, go to the NATE website, look at the videos that are there the climber connection and climber conversation videos because those are a real good taste of what it is that's being done but never lose sight of the fact of why we're doing it. The only way the U.S. will remain competitive in the technology race globally is for us to have robust healthy networks which means you have to have things out there. Infrastructure has to be built to make that happen. And this workforce, I can't tell you how proud I am to be a part of this industry and to represent many of these contractors because I see it. You mentioned the camaraderie. It is like a family. You know the industry for us is big as it is it's pretty small. And everybody does have a personal connection to something that drove them into why they're sitting at the table with NWSA. But frankly, to your listening audience, it's a field of opportunity and it's meaningful.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah I'm often struck by folks who started out climbing a tower and then started owning their own company. It's pretty incredible how you know over the years people are able to grow into their career. So the last thing, any announcements, any events coming up you want to flag?

MR. MACENTEE: Well what I would say is you know kind of preview of coming attractions. Keep a lookout for a couple of new certifications that will be on deck to be worked on in the near term having to do with structural rigging on towers as well as structure modifications to towers.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And for the uninitiated what does that mean?

MR. MACENTEE: Well that that basically means that you want to make sure you're able to lift loads, antennas, platforms, whatever else is going on the tower in a safe manner. You want to know how to. Rigging is basically a series of, for the uninitiated, pulleys and ropes or pulleys and cables and you're hoisting equipment onto a tower and you wanna do that safely because that's a very hazardous operation if done incorrectly it can be dangerous. And as far as tower structural modifications because of the deployments of many of the spectrum frequencies that are going out there, different types of antennas are required and some of those antennas are heavier. Larger surface area create more loading on the tower. So towers have to be reinforced to make them stronger to be able to hold that equipment.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yeah and for those in DC who often are made aware of a new spectrum band coming to market because the FCC held an auction or the FCC promulgated rules to hold an auction just keep in mind that there's an entire workforce out there that will have to deploy new antennas for that frequency so it's important to keep in mind that we do need a robust workforce to deploy all this new technology. But we'll leave it there. My guest has been Duane MacEntee, Executive Director of the National Wireless Safety Alliance. Duane, thanks so much for joining the show.

MR. MACENTEE: Thank you for having me and you're welcome.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Find this podcast on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get this podcast. Please leave us a review, it will help others find the show. You can follow me on Twitter @EvanS_FCC. And with that we'll catch you next time.