There are times that the FCC, though its Daily Releases, appears to be trying to make a point. And Friday was one of those days, when it simultaneously released four separate orders, each fining the owner of a tower used for communications purposes for failures to maintain the required tower lights on those towers. Three of the fines were for $8000, and one for $6000, and three were against broadcasters and one was against a non-broadcast licensee. The facts of each of the cases are slightly different – but together they make clear that the FCC demands that tower lights be maintained in operating condition, and will take few excuses for the failure of those lights to remain operational during required operating hours.
Two of the cases are particularly instructive as to the strict liability of the tower owner. In one case, the owner of the tower argued that it should not be fined, as it maintained a system to monitor tower lights, a system that had just been inspected and found to be in operating condition a few days before the FCC inspection which discovered that a light was out on the tower. Such monitoring systems are permitted by the rules as a substitute for daily visual monitoring of a tower’s lights. However, the FCC found that the station was not being fined for the failure to monitor the tower lights (as that obligation was met through the automatic monitoring system), but instead for the failure of the lights to be lit –a strict liability standard seems to be used to justify the fine.
In another of the cases, a licensee had three towers in a row in close proximity, and asked the FAA for permission to extinguish the lights on the middle tower, while maintaining those lights on the two end towers. The broadcaster thought that it had received permission to make that change, but never received confirmation from the FAA that the obligation to light the middle tower had been removed. The decision finds that the FAA in fact never removed the lighting condition for the middle tower. The moral of the story – get government authority in writing or face the consequences.
The other two decisions (here and here) were less noteworthy – licensees caught with tower lights out, and promptly fixed them, but the fix was not enough to get the FCC to back off the fines. The FCC’s message – if we find a problem, you are supposed to fix it, and the fact that you did doesn’t excuse the problem that existed in the first place.
The release of these four decisions on the same day, whether coincidence or intentional, sure sends the message that the FCC is very concerned with tower lighting issues. Repeatedly, in meetings in Washington DC and in state broadcaster meetings across the country where FCC field office agents have been present, I have heard FCC employees make the point to say that health and safety issues are a top priority – and tower lighting sure qualifies as a safety issue. So check your procedures now to assure that your systems for monitoring your tower lights are in working order, and that the lights are in fact operational – or face the potential for FCC action.