It is as though we are entering a three-dimensional holiday card as we look out the front windshield of a bright-red PistenBully snowcat tracked vehicle stuttering up the mountain through evergreen trees adorned with thick dollops of snow toward a tower farm shrouded in a fog of snowflakes.
There is no emergency today. Just a Legacy Telecommunications employee training to be a new snowcat pilot. CEO Jim Tracy’s tone is light, but his message of safety-first is serious as he puts Jay Peterson through his paces. Teaching him the finer points of controlling the snowy leviathan with a tiny joystick.
But if there were an emergency, this is exactly where you would find them.
The prime power for these remote tower sites in the Cascade Mountain Range comes from generators. If a generator goes out, the clock begins to tick – crews have one battery-life to get to that site for repairs.
“When you have an essential link to a microwave system or even a fiber network goes out, you have a very limited window of opportunity before people start losing data, losing money or lifesaving 911 service,” Tracy said. “Our job is to get to that tower under any type of weather conditions. Snow, rain, slush — as long as it is still safe.”
In order to get there safely, Legacy commands a fleet of vehicles that are up for the job: three PistenBully snowcats and five Polaris utility terrain vehicles (UTV) on quad tracks. The snowcats work best in the heaviest snow, and the UTVs work also well into the spring. Legacy always keeps a UTV to back up the snowcat, or vice versa, in case weather conditions change.
The cost of being prepared is not small, however. A snowcat alone will cost around $250,000, including equipment and a trained operator. Inside the cab, it is safety first with multiple communications options, including a GPS unit, a 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (known as an EPIRB), a satellite phone and a land mobile radio, not to mention a cell phone. But even with these high upfront costs straining return on investment, Tracy views mountain tower services as good for business.
Legacy has service level agreements with customers that require it to be on a tower site that may be on a mountainside, inside a six-hour window. Its fleet of vehicles is positioned in different locations across the Northwest, in order to reach the maximum number of mountaintop tower sites. Though based in Seattle, Legacy reaches mountaintop tower sites to the east as far as South Dakota and to the south as far as Wyoming, southern Oregon and Nevada.
The goal, according to Tracy, is to differentiate Legacy from its competitors in the industry by serving customers’ needs when and where they need to be served.
“Our focus is to create value by never allowing our customers’ towers to go down,” Tracy said. “That allows us to keep our customers happy. We are trying to make sure that they can call us anytime for anything.”
A Path to Diversification
The ability to get technicians to the top of a tower at the top of a mountain in rain, sleet or snow has diversified Legacy’s clients. When you roll up to a mountaintop tower farm, you may see tower owned by FAA for air-to-ground communications. The Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service administers sites and access rather than owning towers. So Legacy has access through and on government property to service sites under their leases. That opens up a number of new customer possibilities. Legacy’s office in Three Forks, Montana, has to access Yellowstone National Park in the winter to reach tower sites when you are more likely to find a bison, elk or moose than a clear road.
“Our ability to reach mountaintops has opened up other avenues for us,” Tracy said. “Legacy has been successful in providing drone service to tower sites in the mountains for the oil and gas community and others in the telecom world, not only for inspections but also for predicting upgrades or to determine whether a tower is safe to climb.”
Legacy Telecommunications, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer, has evolved its fleet over years. If you go back to the year 2000, the fleet included a half-dozen four-wheel-drive, three-quarter-ton Chevy pickups. Ten years later, you would have found a single PistenBully, a pair of UTV quads on wheels and a few pickup trucks fitted with large tool boxes. Today, you will find everything from tractors to excavators, pickup trucks, utility-type service bodies, PistenBullys, excavators, quads on tracks and portable generators.
“Our fleet has changed remarkably over the years, but it is all customer-driven,” Tracy said. “Between the Rockies and the Cascades, we get snow by the yard, not the inch, and our customer may need us when the weather is tough. If you can be their hero during their bad times, they should feel safe with you when the jobs are easier, as well.”
The record snowfall that hit Seattle and the Puget Sound region over last weekend created hours-long traffic jams, canceled hundreds of flights, downed trees and knocked out power to more than 90,000 households in the Puget Sound area. Those were the headlines. Behind the scenes, tower services companies like Legacy Towers worked around the clock for days, keeping hundreds of cell towers up and running and as well as the 911 network.
“The storm, which began last Friday, caused power to be out for four days, keeping our crews busy refueling and sometimes repairing generators and checking on batteries,” said Jim Tracy, CEO, Legacy Towers. “We were on an eight-hour shot clock to make sure these generators were up and running. After our employees’ safety, our first priority was to keep 911 on the air, which not only consists of the emergency dispatch centers but also ensuring that enhanced 911 equipment at the cell sites is compliant for the carriers, which suffer penalties if those systems go down.”
“Employees at Legacy Towers are the unnamed, unnoticed heroes any time the weather gets really ugly. I call them the zero-responders because they jump into action before the first responders are needed,” Tracy said. “Before the snow even began to fall, it was all hands on deck. We work with the carriers hand-in-hand. When they started forecasting really bad weather, we got involved in lots of proactive activities well before ‘snow-mageddon’ hit.”
The effort of a couple of team members stood out to Tracy. He spoke of the Sno-Cat driver that, after his 12-hour shift, volunteered to drive nurses to the hospital.
“Another employee worked 18 hours at a network operations center, literally with a phone stuck to both ears and went home and answered more calls instead of sleeping. When he came back to the office, we had to make him go home to actually sleep,” Tracy said.
The expanse affected by the storm covered an area from the Canadian border 200 miles south to Centralia, Washington, and from the Pacific Ocean 140 miles to Snowqualmie, Washington. In order to service all the towers, Legacy Towers ran three Sno-Cats, four quads with snowmobile tracks, two utility sleds and 30 trucks. (Photos courtesy Legacy Towers)