THE INDIVIDUALS WHO SPEND THEIR DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FIELD ENSURING THAT THE TELECOMMUNICATIONS GRID IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST IS FUNCTIONING ARE A DEDICATED LOT. MUCH LIKE THE MAILMEN OF OLD, THEY MUST DELIVER, REGARDLESS OF THE TIME, DAY, OR WEATHER. SUCH IS THE COST OF OUR FULLY CONNECTED WORLD. KNOWN AFFECTIONALLY AS TOWER DOGS, THESE PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE THEIR STORY TOLD VERY OFTEN.
Starting their days early in the morning, racing the sunrise, they meet at their warehouses to go over the plan for the day. During the warmer months of the year, from March until late October, before the snow begins to fall, they spend all their time in the field. Each day they head to yet another remote repeater site, the ones you see clustered atop mountains, a burr of antennas, satellite dishes, and looming towers. As they load up their gear for the assignment, maps are poured over, and general plans for the approach are designed.
They might need to jump on a snowcat, or a tracked truck, maybe even an ATV. Getting to a remote tower sight is an adventure, often requiring three- to five-hour journeys over rutted logging roads, broad farm lanes, sinuous backwoods climbs, and sandy stretches that turn to tire-sucking mire when wet. By the time they arrive at the site, often straddling a high ridge or peak for better coverage, they are battered and beaten, yet also energized. They just got paid to do something most people sitting at their desks daydream about.
As each moment passes, the view gets better and the risk worse
Getting there is half the battle and half the fun. You never know what has changed since your last visit,” says Kevin Timmons, a senior systems technician with Racom Critical Communications. “A tree could be blocking your approach, dense foliage might need to be trimmed back, roads change and get washed out, rocks fall, and nature happens.”
Standing at the base of a 150-foot-high tower as the wind whips by can be nerve-wracking, causing moments of reflection. But someone must head up. Swaddled in a twenty-pound safety harness with numerous straps, ropes, and other equipment dangling off their body, they clip their safety line in and start to work their way skyward. The worn steel rungs of the tower pass by their helmets one by one. As each moment passes, the view gets better and the risk worse. Once they reach the top, a weighted rope is lowered to haul up the gear needed for the job. Then they get to work. It could be a quick job or one that takes hours or days.
Depending on the assignment and conditions, the two or three people on the project might just decide to spend the night. It’s better than heading back down the slopes in dying sunlight. Vehicles are always loaded with gear for just such a possibility. Sleeping bags are unrolled, bivy sacks are broken out, a fire is sparked to life, and dinner is cooked. When morning arrives, workers dig into their packs for fresh clothes and get back to work in the crisp cool air. There is no heading back until the job is done. The limited summer work window means that every minute matters.
“It takes a patient person to thrive in this industry...It throws loops at you all the time that you’re not ready for. If something goes sideways, and it does all the time, you just figure out a workaround."
“It takes a patient person to thrive in this industry. It throws loops at you all the time that you’re not ready for,” says Timmons. “You have to learn to roll with things and not get stressed out. When you are in the middle of nowhere, all you have is your team and your equipment. If something goes sideways, and it does all the time, you just figure out a workaround.”
Once back down from the site, they load up their trucks and head towards the highway. It’s windshield time as they travel to the next place or back to the shop. The days are long and hard, but they take pleasure in knowing that their work means something. When someone is feeling lonely, lost, or just wants to say hello, they will be able to, due to the work that was done on the site.
“Most people take for granted that they can just contact anyone these days,” says Timmons. “That is what makes me smile. When I hear a fireman call on a radio or my buddy’s kid calling him on the phone, I know that I helped make that happen.”