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COPs: REPACK - Standard or Premium?

In the summer of 2019, an 18-year-old tower technician fell to his death from a 150-foot monopole.

Through evidence revealed via an OSHA investigation and charges pressed by the estate of the deceased, all signs point to negligence in safety and climbing training on the part of his employer, a general contractor.

The tower was not damaged or in a state of negligence or disrepair. The tower technician’s climbing gear was in good shape — it was not a fault of any particular piece of equipment. No one actually saw what happened, but all evidence pointed to the tower tech having tied off incorrectly.

This evidence, juxtaposed against the grim picture painted by OSHA’s investigation into his employer’s lack of training on all fronts, would lead one intuitively to think that the contractor would be the sole entity to ultimately answer for the incident.

But though the lack of safety training procedures falls on the shoulders of the contractor, that company is not the only participant made to face accusations of negligence. Indeed, the turf vendor, the carrier, and the tower owner were all called to answer for this field technician’s death.

And now, two years later, the investigation is still ongoing. As it turns out, all four entities involved show a lack of documentation related to their respective levels of involvement with that particular site and fateful site visit.

The contractor, in a wildly tone-deaf statement, asserts that it was the tower technician’s own negligence that led to his death — but cannot seem to provide proof of any adequate tower climbing or safety training protocol.

The turf vendor is having a hard time demonstrating that they’d conducted a proper field technician certification review prior to the start of construction.

The carrier asserts that it is really the turf vendor’s responsibility to confirm legality and proper insurances on behalf of the carrier — which may be technically true, depending on their contractual verbiage, but is not strong enough a stance to relieve the carrier of legal responsibility.

The tower owner points to the lease agreement with the carrier as a basis for denial of allegations. Even so — even if the carrier was in violation of the lease agreement toward enforcing safety compliance on-site, that still does not guarantee the tower owner’s exclusion from any potential forthcoming judgment.

If any one of these entities had been compiling a thorough, proper industry-standard COP throughout the life of the project, that entity may have had a much easier time navigating this investigation.

While the completion of a Closeout Package (COP) should be the final step that marks the conclusion of a project, more realistically it’s a compilation of documents and deliverables that should be accumulating throughout the project. When the documents are done accumulating and they’re organized in one place and in a sensical, usable way — then you have your complete COP and a completed project.

But most of the work of compiling a COP happens while the project is ongoing — got your NTP? Add it to the closeout folder. Got the building permit? Add it to the closeout folder. Got a crew about to step foot on-site? Get the field and tower technicians’ certifications prior to the construction start date, and add it all to the closeout folder.

While the purpose of a COP is ultimately to serve as a go-to source of truth in the event of a future audit, the fact is the act of compiling your COP at each step throughout the project’s lifecycle can help to prevent many kinds of issues from arising in the first place.

In the event of the fatality above, if any of the entities now answering to OSHA had asked for proof of safety and tower-climbing certification for all technicians on site prior to construction, and had found evidence of that stark lack of training — it is possible this horribly unfortunate event may not have happened at all.

The fact is, every single entity involved with any kind of tower construction project should have its own kind of COP. The involvement of the entity may inform what that COP contains, but it should most certainly be more than nothing.

Because QComm is involved with both REPACK and non-REPACK stations, in order to compile station-specific COPs for all of our clients, we’ve sectioned off our types of COP into three different tiers. The below descriptions may help station owners decide what type of COP best suits their needs — and protects their station from any kind of audit or other questions that may come their way.

Silver: REPACK-only COP

As we’ve said before, the last REPACK-only COP we compiled for a client ended up being over 5,700 pages. Here’s what that looks like printed off. It’s no small feat.

A REPACK-only COP contains, you guessed it, all documents related to the financial portion of the REPACK project, and any FCC-specific documentation like your new License to Cover. It’ll be a compilation of all invoices, FCC requests for information, allocation history, reimbursement history, financial reconciliation matrices, and so on.

This is the baseline for any REPACK project participant — you can’t not have a REPACK-only COP given that the FCC has directed all REPACK station owners to keep all project-related financial documents until 2033. If you’re going to have to keep everything anyway, specifically for audit protection purposes, then it most certainly needs to be put together in a way that you can actually find information years down the road.

And this baseline COP type is actually a perfect demonstration of why COP documents should be accumulated throughout the life of a project. Most station owners involved with REPACK have been accumulating documents and deliverables that belong in a REPACK-only COP for maybe up to a couple of years now.

Rather than waiting for the very end of the project to have to dig up old emails showing Requests for Information, and go back and try to make sense of year-old invoices against reimbursements against allocations — some of which can get pretty messy on paper when sorting through in retrospect rather than as they arise — the COP process is far less daunting if you simply have a place you can drop files as you get them. A folder on your desktop, a file folder system in DropBox, OneDrive, a third-party COP service that keeps track of all that for you — whatever document system works for you is far better than no system at all.

If a station is involved in REPACK, then the REPACK-only COP is absolutely required per FCC audit guidelines. But whether it’s a REPACK station or not, the industry-standard COP is really what every broadcast station should strive for.

Gold: Industry-standard COP

An industry-standard COP — actually just generally called a COP — serves as a compilation of all photos and documents that correlate to any milestone throughout a tower construction project.

When we say “tower construction,” that means any work done on the tower structure itself, any work done on equipment mounted on the tower, and can even mean ground-only work within a tower compound. For example, if the scope of work for your project involves only swapping out a transmitter in the shelter, you still need a COP for that project.

The documents for this COP begin accumulating from the very beginning. Lease audit, NTP, zoning review, permit applications, site walk form, pre-photos, post-photos, site acceptance and absolutely everything in between — every milestone that has a correlating document or photo goes into a COP.

This kind of COP applies to all tower work, both telecom and broadcast, both REPACK and non-REPACK. Whereas the REPACK-only COP serves to protect a station in the event of an FCC audit, the industry-standard COP serves to protect a station in the event of — well, basically any reason an outside entity approaches the station owner with questions.

In the most extreme case, as described above, a thoroughly compiled COP serves to protect a station owner in the event of an incident on site leading to injury or death. That’s the kind of thing one hopes one never needs to answer for — there’s a reason there are a million safety procedures and requirements in place for tower climbers. But in the unfortunate event there was an accident on your site, your complete and accurate COP can help you field the questions that come your way.

More commonly, an industry-standard COP demonstrates that the project proceeded safely, legally and in keeping with jurisdictional requirements, OSHA requirements and, where applicable, landlord requirements. Any of these entities can approach a station owner requiring proof of this or that.

A landlord may require photos and/or documents showing that the equipment installed on the tower structure has the same AGL as shown on proposed configurations on the engineering documents. The jurisdiction could require their own types of permit compliance proof for permit closure. And of course OSHA can always ask their own questions in the event of an incident, or just as a randomized audit.

Since we have our own verbiage for our types of COPs, it’s worth clarifying here that for REPACK stations, a Gold COP will also include all REPACK deliverables included in the Silver REPACK-only COP.

Platinum: COP and additional services

This COP type is QComm-specific. We all know everyone needs to compile a COP, and we all know that REPACK stations will need to review and reconcile all financials related to the REPACK project.

But the platinum COP includes several services that benefit both REPACK and non-REPACK stations.

First, our state-of-the-art drone systems will capture all post-construction photos on the station’s behalf. Our recommended photo list is comprehensive for both ground- and tower-level equipment.

From what we’ve been seeing so far, most field installation vendors tend not to take photos during installation, or take very few — but photos are just about the best way to verify that the equipment that was supposed to be installed did, indeed, end up where it needed to be on the tower or in the shelter, and also verifies that all equipment was installed per specifications.

Rather than have someone revisit the station and ascend the tower simply to take photos, we capture them for you with drone-piloted installation verification and incorporate those photos into the COP. It’s faster, it’s far safer, and it’s guaranteed to be a thorough photo set for the COP.

Second, we review CORES accounts and accounts payable for REPACK stations to ensure that every reimbursable expense is identified and submitted prior to the submittal deadline date. That may sound less important — stations are submitting expenses and invoices as they accrue, so one might think that as long as you’re submitting everything in a timely manner, then you’re getting reimbursed for everything, right?

Not entirely true. So far we’ve found close to a half a million dollars in unsubmitted, reimbursable expenses on behalf of our clients. The act of compiling a thorough, accurate closeout and reviewing accounts payable at the same time has revealed missed reimbursable expenses multiple times. It’s always worth taking another look.

Third, we offer platinum COP clients additional consultation services in the event that a station does get audited by the FCC — and again, that can happen any time between right now and 2033. If the audit questions start coming in, we help to navigate that process and find information quickly.

Fortunately for REPACK stations, COP services are 100% reimbursable.

The FCC has laid out its audit guidelines and specifically requires stations to keep their REPACK financial documents for ten years starting in 2023. They want you to have some kind of COP on hand for audit purposes, and the more organized and thorough that COP is, the better your station or stations will hold up to an audit.

But that does mean that whether you compile your COP yourself, hire a third party or hire QComm to compile your COP, you’ll want to start that process as early as possible so all COP-related expenses are ones that you can submit for reimbursement before your deadline comes up.

Before you close out your station with the FCC, get in touch with us with any questions or to discuss your station’s COP needs.

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