Chasing the news can lead reporters smack into the danger zone. During an ice storm last month in Dallas, a tractor trailer slammed into a parked news truck from the local Tele­mundo station. While covering a forest fire a few years back, a KNBC Los Angeles crew abandoned their van just before it was engulfed in flames.And in New York, two TV reporters have been hospitalized after being struck while preparing roadside dispatches, and one, NY1's Rebecca Spitz, was knocked into a coma.
Such accidents may have been avoidable, says a TV-safety consultant, if stations practiced safer newsgathering.
“We send crews out to deal with severe weather, terrorism and civil unrest,” says John A. Smith, president of Media Safety Services Inc., a three-year-old company that advises TV stations and networks on safety and emergency preparedness. “We need to train them better in the rules of what to do.”
A former TV reporter and producer, Smith advises 20 stations and their corporate parents, including Viacom and Uni­vision, on field safety and preparedness.
To prevent street accidents, he says, reporters should stand at least 3 feet from the curb, and someone—a reporter or photographer—should wear a reflective vest. The station vehicle should be surrounded by six orange cones. Such measures, Smith says, protect crews without detracting from the story.
Across the country, news crews are pushing harder—and taking bigger risks—to get the story. During the 2005 hurricane season, viewers were barraged with images of reporters flapping in more than 100-mph winds.
“One day, someone is going to get killed. A piece of debris or lumber is going to hit them,” says Dave Vincent, news director for WLOX Biloxi, Miss., whose headquarters were badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
When a storm hits, Vincent says, his team hunkers down: “Our No. 1 rule is, we don't send people out during the storm. We report before and after.”
Most stations and networks have sim­ilar rules of conduct for covering storms and other dangerous stories. Some receive assistance from insurance companies, which dispatch field-safety advisors.
But Smith tries to teach crews how to cover the news safely on their own. His checklist urges stations to have cellphones with multiple carriers, in case one goes down. Station vehicles should have directions to major hospitals and burn centers. Also on board: first-aid kits, water, tires, oil and flares.
“I PAID THE PRICE”
“The further crews go from home base, the more that can go wrong,” Smith says.
He speaks from experience. In 1989, while shooting a travel special in the Bahamas, Smith got the flu. With the production on a tight budget, he says, he stayed on the story. When he returned home, he was hospitalized, suffering permanent lung damage.
“There was no plan to deal with a health or safety issue on the job,” he says. “I paid the price.”
The experience motivated him to broaden his TV duties. Viacom contracted Smith to develop a production-training program and sent him to an insurance safety school.
Afterwards, he ad­vised Viacom's stations and cable networks and later worked for insurance companies St. Paul and Aon Corp.
In 2002, Smith ventured out on his own. Several times a year, he visits stations and surveys their practices. He trains field producers and engineers and also meets with assignment editors.
At one station, the meteorologist was tracking severe thunderstorms, and Smith asked assignment editors what instructions they had given the crews for seeking shelter. The answer was none.
Says Smith, “If the crews had information before they'd left, they could have taken precautions, such as pulling down the antennas.”