Lift death spurred schools to action
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Colleges across the country have tightened their use of aerial lifts -- or outright eliminated them -- a year after a Notre Dame student was killed when wind gusts toppled the lift where he was filming football practice.
Some officials worry that the dangers persist, though, because there's no universal requirement for how schools should use the structures that were intended for construction sites, not practice fields.
"We've got to get rid of these things," said David Hougland, director of sports broadcasting at Texas Tech. "No one should ever die or be injured from falling from one of these."
Twenty-year-old Declan Sullivan was filming practice on Oct. 27, 2010, when winds of up to 53 mph blew over the lift he was on. After a nearly six-month investigation, university officials acknowledged that their procedures and safeguards were not adequate and paid a $42,000 fine to the state for safety violations. Notre Dame's investigation also found that many schools nationwide did not have specific safety protocols in place for aerial lifts.
Since then, dozens of colleges have changed their policies, from handing out copies of the lift guidelines to all videographers to specifying the wind speeds at which the lifts won't be used. Some schools, including Notre Dame, have stopped using them.
"All of us nationally kind of took a step back and evaluated what we were doing," Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee said.
The most high-profile change has occurred at the University of Florida, which installed six permanent towers at a cost of $650,000 so it could curtail its use of aerial lifts. Chip Howard, an associate athletic director, said the school began reviewing how it uses aerial lifts immediately after Sullivan's death.
"When that happened we got our video staff together and discussed, 'Hey, how do we do things? How do our guys feel when they go up? How high do our lifts go up?' " he said.
The university found that while videographers were given equipment to monitor the wind -- a practice Notre Dame lacked -- there wasn't a written policy outlining the wind speeds at which the lifts wouldn't be used. Howard said Florida has adopted a written policy prohibiting their use when the wind is gusting 28 mph or more.
Florida then decided its best long-term solution was to install the permanent 41-foot-high towers with lightning rods. The school still occasionally uses lifts, but the need for them is greatly reduced, Howard said.
Notre Dame stopped using lifts to film practice after installing remote-controlled cameras on its practice field in the spring. Arkansas State took down a 30-year-old tower that used telephone poles as its base because of safety concerns and replaced it with a 51-foot-high steel tower.
Tulane, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech also revised their aerial lift policies. Tulane now specifies to what heights the two types of lifts it uses can be extended under certain wind conditions, and says the aerial lifts may not be used when gusts reach 25 mph or greater. It also specifies that weather conditions should be checked less than an hour before practice begins and that each lift be equipped with a wind meter.
Lori Williams, associate athletic director at the University of Kansas, said one of the biggest challenges as the school reviewed its policy was seeing how it compared with other schools.
"What we found is that there isn't one centralized location that said, 'OK, this is exactly what you should do.' It leaves a lot of flexibility to the institutions," she said.
Texas Tech already had some of the nation's strictest rules among universities on aerial lifts. It allows videographers to lower lifts if they have safety concerns, requires athletic department staff to monitor weather conditions to ensure the videographer's safety and limits the heights to which lifts can be raised to 20 feet in gusts of 20 mph or more. If winds hit 40 mph, the lifts are banned.
Texas Tech had updated its policy just six weeks before Sullivan's death to require that videographers carry hand-held wind meters. It was revised again afterward, requiring all videographers to be certified to use the lifts and requiring daily inspections of the devices. The updated policy was given to all videographers instead of just being posted on a wall, Hougland said. He said Texas Tech hopes to eventually move away from using aerial lifts.
"They're used on construction sites for a reason. We're just using something from a construction site and repurposing it for our needs," he said.
Federal officials, athletic groups and Notre Dame have worked to publicize the dangers of aerial lifts. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an alert in July, citing Sullivan's death as an example of the dangers. As part of its settlement with the state, Notre Dame launched LiftUpRight.org, a website about the hazards of aerial lifts.
"We are working closely with the Sullivans to keep the legacy of Declan alive by helping others benefit from their, and our, great loss," Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said.
Sullivan's father, Barry, told the Chicago Tribune for a story published Thursday that the family is focused on trying to ensure that such accidents don't happen again and that something beneficial comes from his son's death. He said the family was never interested in suing Notre Dame and did not receive a financial settlement.
"It was not our first impulse to go out and hire a lawyer. That's not the way we're wired," he said. "We never really felt a reason to pursue any kind of legal action. Why would you do that?"
The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics provided information on the safety campaign to 1,600 institutions. Articles about it have run in publications from the National Federation of High Schools and the University Risk Management and Insurance Association.
"Everyone is certainly aware of what went on and is trying to be more calculated and know what's going on, on a daily basis," said Christopher Luke, vice president of the Collegiate Sports Video Association and director of football video operations at the University of North Carolina.
At Notre Dame, where a memorial to Sullivan sits outside the school's football facility, coach Brian Kelly says the remote cameras have provided "peace of mind." But he says it's important to ensure that nothing like the accident happens again.
"We lost a young man," Kelly said. "You never forget about that."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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