Cool Jobs: CBP employees fight elements to keep data flowing

Field technology officers must fix hardware and software no matter the hazard, even if it\'s hundreds of feet up on a tower or on a snow covered mountain top. E...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

In the fight to protect the border, Don Ealy has a bird’s eye view-literally.

Ealy, a field technology officer in the Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Information and Technology, climbs communications towers that are hundreds of feet in the air to fix radar, sensors or other types of equipment. The hardware and software play a key role in providing tactical communications, both voice and data, to border patrol agents on the ground.

“On average whenever we do climb it’s 60-to-80 feet to check remote video cameras but we do have other towers and they are in remote locations,” Ealy says. “They vary from 160 feet to 1,580 feet. Tower climbing, I guess you could say it’s a cool job, but it’s also a dangerous job because your first mistake could be your last mistake.”

Ealy and his co-workers across the country and even overseas are technical daredevils that keep not just communications equipment, but everything from telephone systems, voice mail, desktop computers, radios and night vision goggles working in some of the harshest conditions.

“We are on call 24/7 so we do our routine maintenance during the day,” says DeValon Lawrence, the director of field support in CBP’s Office of Information and Technology. “If we come in in the morning and there is an outage, we immediately go to that site. But if something breaks in the middle of the night, we get a call from the operational unit and we do respond.”

Lawrence oversees 600 field workers in eight regions around the country.

“In the southern border a lot people think of Arizona, as an example, as just being the sunshine, but we actually have mountain tops because of the elevation that receives snow fall so we get requests from my Arizona team for snow cats to help them get up the mountain tops,” she says. “On the northern border the weather condition can be extreme cold so we have snow cats and even all terrain vehicles to get into those mountainous areas.”

In fact, Lawrence says one time a tower in the Spokane, Wash. area became covered with ice. CBP tried to hire a contractor to get rid of the ice and fix the equipment, but they said “call us in the spring.”

So CBP employees-like Ealy-strapped on their safety equipment and cold weather gear and did the job the contractors wouldn’t do.

“As a result of that, they initiated a project out of that area and came up with a solution partnering with some vendors to come up with a heated antenna solution that keeps the ice from forming over long periods of time so that doesn’t reoccur,” Lawrence says.

It’s that type of technical skill and physical ability that the job routinely calls for.

Lawrence says CBP recruits former military servicemen and women to join the team. Ealy is one of those veterans.

“In my career, I worked in aircraft avionics and then I cross trained in telecommunications,” Ealy says. “After I retired I looked for something in telecommunications. As far as climbing, my only experience was at Clark air base when I was in primary systems control and we had a tower there and I thought that was pretty neat.”

Ealy says he likes outdoors sports like hiking and rock climbing so the tower climbing is an enjoyable part of his job.

And it needs to be with the dangers he potentially faces each day, including structure, wildlife and environmental hazards.

“If you are going out just to check a connection on an antenna you might be able to go out there in a 25 MPH wind and no problem,” he says. “But if you going to hang 12-foot microwave dish, you may have a 2 MPH wind and that may be too much. It depends on the job. You have to use a little bit of common sense.”

He says if it’s raining or storming, you don’t climb because the towers act as huge lightening rods.

Along with weather, technicians face wildlife hazards from bee and wasp’s nests to rattle snakes to bears in some parts of the country.

Ealy says one time he was attacked by Africanized bees when climbing a tower to do maintenance.

“I did get a bee suit and put it on and went back to complete the job,” he says. “They were so upset they actually started stinging me through my rubber gloves.”

Ealy says even after using a professional’s bee keeper’s suit, the bees found a way to sting him again.

“Africanized bees are pretty dangerous,” he says. “We returned another time and were a little more cautious and we actually got the job done. But it was my worst experience. I had about 60 bee stings so it was a good thing I’m not allergic to them.”

Ealy says safety is his office’s number one concern. He says anytime employees go climbing there are at least two people, and usually an entire crew.

Lawrence adds employees who climb towers must be certified annually and must be 100 percent connected to the tower once they climb higher than six feet.

Employees go through a two-day class-which Ealy is an instructor for-where they spend one day in the classroom and one day actually climbing under an instructor’s supervision. Ealy says they practice rescuing and getting rescued during the second day of the class.

Despite the dangers, Ealy says he loves his job.

“Every day something is a little different; you get new challenges; you have systems go down; things don’t always work the same so it makes you have to get in there and think about it, that is what I like the best,” Ealy says. “It’s the same with the climbing. You go out to work on the systems and it’s usually something different and I like that challenge.”

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