Telecommunications technicians from across US compete on high in Valley

Submitted photo Timmy Coles of Liberty Electric works on an antenna installation during the Tough Tower competition in North Jackson.

NORTH JACKSON — The second annual Tough Tower Competition tested the climbing and technical skills of telecommunication tower technicians Saturday and Sunday at the Tri-County Tower lot in North Jackson.

Called “Tower Dogs” in the lingo of the profession, tower technicians are responsible for keeping communications technology operating, said Tri-County Tower CEO Chris Thomas from Berlin Center. They keep communications that are so vital to American society operating, he said.

Technicians and judges came from all over the country including Utah, North Carolina, Arizona and Michigan to compete. The technicians competed on company teams. In all, eight teams competed in eight different tasks Saturday. The best four moved on tournament-style to the semifinals and finals on Sunday.

“It’s a challenge based on challenges they would see in the field kind of pared down into a competition style,” Thomas said. “Our main focus is safety, followed by technical proficiency and then speed.”

For Sunday’s semifinals, the technicians scaled the 60-foot training tower — which is small compared with communications tower standards — unhooked an antenna, which looked like a mini tanning bed, and lowered it to the ground. On the ground, another technician fitted a new antenna with brackets so it could be reattached. Technicians then hoisted the new antenna back to the matrix of cross beams where veteran technicians were perched in an apparatus.

The competition is meant to “highlight tower technicians and the role that they play in the nation’s infrastructure,” Thomas said.

“Anyone who uses the internet, anyone who uses cellphones, these are the guys who keep them running,” Thomas said. “They are very brave, and they are very strong and physically capable.”

Tri-County Tower is a family business, started by Thomas’ father-in-law, Doug Henry, and his partner, Frank Kovach, who were maintenance men at a local radio station. The story is “kind of American dream stuff,” Thomas said.

“They taught themselves this industry through that classic combination of hard work and ingenuity and that ‘never quit’ attitude,” he said. “They built it from two guys in a barn figuring it out to a multimillion-dollar business here.”

Thomas worked for the company in high school, served in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer for four years, and then returned to work for Tri-Tower. He bought the company in 2018 and helped to organize the first competition in 2023.

Tri-County partnered with STG Communications, a telecommunications construction company, to make the competition possible.

“This is bringing awareness in a fun manner to a career that is growing,” Amanda Gonzalez, STG communications events coordinator, said. “Technology is just evolving, and our guys are out there working in all elements and at different heights at all hours of the day. We decided to throw this to add a fun element to their industry.”

An unregulated industry, tower work was at one time a very accident-prone career. Now, most companies voluntarily require training, Thomas said, and the number of accidents has greatly decreased. Part of the Tough Tower Competition is dedicated to safety techniques, he said. After reattaching the antenna, technicians “rescued” full-sized human dummies hanging from the tower and lowered them safely to the ground. Competitors share techniques and learn from each other as well as the judges who, Thomas said, have a collected “300 years of experience.”

Mike Bryson, from Ashtabula County, is a 29-year veteran of the profession. He started climbing towers in his senior year of high school and has been doing it ever since. He admits that being a Tower Dog is a dangerous way to make a living.

“It’s hard to get guys to do this line of work,” Bryson said. He has had to rescue two climbers already. One climber fell and was dangling in his harness. The other climber froze in fear after scaling a tower. Knowing how to save someone is very important, Bryson said, hence the practice during competition.

“This is to teach guys a little bit more,” Bryson said, “keep everybody safe.”

Rodney Wozab came all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been a telecommunication technician for 12 years, “and I love it,” he said.

“We’re just out here showing everyone what we can do, and what we do as an industry that is very, very overlooked,” Wozab said.

“This is what we do to keep the nation communicating,” Wozab added. “You know, if you are TikTok, Facebook, anything like that, people just don’t understand the risks we take every day to do what we’ve got to do to keep everybody connected in this world.”

At the end of the day, SBA Communications from Ohio took first place. Dan Combs Consulting of Michigan took second; American Power Tower, a national company, took third; and Elevated Services of Ohio took fourth.

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