Communications towers typically fail in storms once every 10 years or so. For Action Communications, three of its customers’ towers collapsed as a result of storms over the Thanksgiving weekend.
The towers spanned a wide area in the Panhandle — one near Chadron State Park, one near Lakeside and a third near Kimball.
Action Communications President Rick Derr said Thursday that his crews are working with all of the companies impacted to figure out the best approach to getting them back on track.
The Kimball tower housed communications systems for the Kimball County Sheriff’s Department and Nebraska State Patrol. The communication equipment from that tower has been relocated to another nearby tower to get those emergency services back up and running quickly in the interim until a replacement tower can be erected.
The Eagle Communications tower near Chadron facilitates KCOW Radio, Northwest Rural Electric Company and the National Weather Service NOAA weather transmitter. A release from NWS in Cheyenne indicated that NOAA users in northern Sioux and northern Dawes Counties can tune to frequency 162.425, and those users in southern Sioux, southern Dawes, Box Butte and southern Sheridan counties can tune to frequency 162.475. Users can also download the FEMA app to get weather alerts. Action Communications is working to find a partner to make arrangements to relocate NREC’s communications, but there are two other towers they use that are allowing them to get by for the time being.
The tower near Lakeside is owned by Panhandle Rural Electric Membership Association, which serves all or part of the 11 counties in western Nebraska. PREMA experienced more than 200 downed power poles in its service area in addition to the communication tower. With PREMA’s crews working to get power lines and poles restored for electrical customers, efforts to restore the communication tower have been placed on hold until next week.
The “perfect storm” that caused three towers to fail in one storm will likely never be fully identified with evidence buried under feet of snow, but Derr said an educated guess is that ice built up, coating the guy-wires and anchors on the towers. Once the ice built up, the increased weight that had to be supported likely caused the first wire to snap, allowing the tower to become unstable and wind to blow them around enough to cause the failure. One photo that has circulated shows an energy drink can next to a chunk of ice that had built up on a power line in PREMA’s territory. The thickness of the ice is about the same as the can. In all tower failures, the bottom 100 feet or so of the tower is still standing.
“So, the tower didn’t fail because of downward pressure,” Derr said, relating his best educated guess. “I’m confident that either a guy-anchor or a guy-wire failed. That on its own would allow the tower to stay standing, but in all probability, in that wind, it just started oscillating back and forth until it broke a second guy-wire and then a third guy-wire.”
As the information began to come in about the downed towers, the Action Communications team went to work on solutions.
“I’m a fixer,” Derr said. “(PREMA) was the first call that came in (Sunday night). From the second that call comes in, we start — you can’t do a lot in a blizzard — but we start making a plan on how we’re going to do something temporary for that customer. We were having conversations with the line superintendent, and he actually goes, ‘Hey, by the way, did you know one of Northwest Public Power’s (towers) went down?’ At that time, I didn’t know it, so at that time, I started doing some research and reaching out to their line superintendent, and we start formulating a plan.”
Adapting on the fly came quickly when the third tower failure was reported.
“When the Kimball County Sheriff tower failed, you have to prioritize,” Derr said. “As important as (Rural Electric Areas) are to you, the particular tower for Kimball County Sheriff had State Patrol, the Sheriff, there were a lot of eggs in that basket. So at that point, all of our resources focused to Kimball County Sheriff to get those public safety services back on the air.”
By 8:30 Monday morning, crews were loading up equipment and antennas and going to work to get the coverage fixed to ensure public safety.
The PREMA tower is 350 feet tall with the Kimball County tower coming in at 300 feet. The Eagle Communications tower is approximately 600 feet. Replacement of the three towers will go out to bid, and Derr said the timeline for replacement would likely be about 12 weeks from receipt of a purchase order, depending on the winning bidder for the work.