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Tuesday August 2, 2011New Towers Reaffirm Gators' Commitment To Safety

Gainesville, Fla.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Dave Houts has recorded Florida football practices since Emmitt Smith’s final season in 1989.

When Houts first started, the Gators’ practice fields featured multiple permanent towers that team videographers climbed to record practice for the coaching staff. Due to various construction projects, one of the towers was taken down sometime in the mid-1990s and another about four years ago, leaving only one in recent years.

Since then, like many other schools around the country – including state schools USF and Florida State – Florida’s videographers recorded practice primarily on hydraulic scissor lifts that are widely used in the construction business.

The lifts are mobile and require little upkeep since most schools rent them during football season and then return them until spring practice starts. However, their use in college football came into question on Oct. 27 when Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan, a 20-year-old junior who worked as one of the team’s videographers, was killed when the 50-foot scissor lift he was on recording practice was toppled by high winds and fell onto an adjacent street.

The director of video services for Florida’s athletic program, Houts got a knot in his stomach when he first heard the news about Sullivan’s death.

“I feel bad for the parents of that kid,’’ Houts said. “You just don’t think something is going to happen like that at football practice. I’ve always told our guys that if you’re up there and you don’t feel safe, then come down. I want you to be safe above all else.’’

Shortly after the tragedy at Notre Dame, Florida officials met to review the program’s safety standards and the protocols used when recording practice, including the use scissor lifts. The meeting led to changes for the upcoming football season, including the installation of six permanent steel towers on the Gators’ practice fields.

If you have been on campus the past couple of weeks, you have probably seen the 35-foot structures being put in place atop three-foot thick concrete pads that are approximately 20-by-20.

“Continuing our commitment to the safest practices for our video staff, we are in the process of constructing new permanent video towers at our facilities,’’ said Chip Howard, UF’s senior associate athletic director for internal affairs. “The current construction at the football practice fields will be completed in time for the start of fall practice and will greatly limit the use of lifts used for taping practice.’’

Houts said the Gators often used three to four scissor lifts in recent years, the tallest one around 40 feet. With the new towers in place, the use of scissor lifts will be greatly reduced. The most likely need during football season will be by the offensive staff looking for a certain vantage point on Field 2.

Meanwhile, there remains a need to use a scissor lift during preseason practice at the lacrosse complex but the team videographers will work under revised safety standards the athletic department installed last year.

The towers are considered safer than scissor lifts and also feature other amenities that will help the Gators’ videographers do their job, including permanent roofs and electrical outlets. Each tower will also be equipped with lightning rods since lightning is always a major concern during fall camp at schools in the Sunshine State.

“The whole idea in putting those towers up is safety,’’ Houts said. “These towers are going to be a lot better as far as keeping guys dry. The lifts weren’t covered. In a rain situation, the guy had to really struggle to keep their equipment dry.’’

What won’t change, Houts said, is the practice of taking extra precautions when lightning is in the area. Team support personnel regularly check the weather for updates before and during practice.

The UAA’s game day lightning protocol is followed for practices as well: any lightning strike within 10 miles that staff is immediately notified. If a lightning strike occurs within six miles the field is cleared for a minimum of 30 minutes the time of the last strike within that range.

In the aftermath of Sullivan’s death and his eerie tweet shortly before the lift collapsed – ‘Gust of wind up to 60mph well today will be fun at work…I guess I've lived long enough,’ he wrote – schools all across the country have reviewed their safety protocols.

Notre Dame released an internal report in April that stated “no one acted in disregard for safety” on the day of the accident, but that a “sudden and extraordinary” wind and insufficient and outdated protocols were the main culprits.

“The university is collectively responsible,” said the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president. “Insofar as the president is responsible for the university as a whole, I am the individual who bears the most responsibility and I accept that responsibility.”

According to AthleticBusiness.com, Texas Tech started requiring its videographers to wear safety harnesses in 2006. Other schools plan to follow suit or install permanent towers like Florida.

Prior to the incident at Notre Dame, the most publicized accident involving a scissor lift came at Colorado State in 2000 when videographer Shane Ballew suffered broken ribs, punctured lungs and liver damage when his 30-foot hydraulic lift fell over in high winds.

Ballew recently told Denver’s NBC affiliate KUSA-TV that he is encouraged to see more schools getting away from using hydraulic lifts to record practice.

“When it happened to me there were a lot of e-mails, a lot of stories that went out to different video directors to let them know that, 'Hey, this is a danger that everyone faces,’ ’’ Ballew said. “Sometimes time can make you forget things, and I think as time passed, people forgot that this can be a dangerous job."

The Collegiate Sports Video Association revisited the subject at its annual meetings in May.

Houts, named CSVA Video Coordinator of the Year in the SEC in 2006, is confident UF’s permanent towers make his staff’s job safer and more conducive to providing the coaching staff the best video to help the Gators on Saturdays.

“It became apparent to us that this was the best thing to do,’’ Houts said. “What happened at Notre Dame is horrible. You just hope that never happens again.’’

 

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