A Dangerous Landscape
April 1, 2007
Studying the ground as he walked along listening to his Schonstedt magnetic locator, George Sadler Jr. stepped around a corner in urban Durham, N.C., into a nightmare. Looking up, Sadler stared into the barrel of a gun held by a suspected drug dealer. Suddenly, what had been a routine job for the survey party chief became a life-or-death situation. Sadler had apparently interrupted a deal--and the involved “businessmen” were not pleased.
Speaking in rapid fire, Sadler explained every detail of his surveying assignment to convince the men he meant them no harm. Squinting through the barrage of gibberish, the man with the gun came to believe that Sadler was not an immediate threat. With a quick gesture of the weapon, he sent the surveyor away.
When Sadler returned to tell his story to our staff at Stewart Engineering, our firm immediately resolved to change its training procedures to improve staff safety on the job. Stewart Engineering Inc., founded in 1994 in Morrisville, N.C., provides surveying, structural, civil and transportation engineering, special inspections and construction services for clients throughout the southeastern United States. Since technological advances in the industry are allowing one person to do work that traditionally required a two- or even three-person field crew, there is no longer safety in numbers for surveyors. As a result, Stewart Engineering has implemented an urban safety training course for its field staff.
Rising Crime RatesLike many other firms, Stewart Engineering’s jobs frequently require its field surveyors to work on urban revitalization projects in cities afflicted by rising crime rates. Relying on the luck or street smarts of our staff is not enough to protect them. Statistics show that violent crime is growing across the nation, so the dangers faced by survey crews are increasing. According to the FBI, the estimated volume of violent crime across the country rose 2.3 percent in 2005--the largest annual increase since the early 1990s.1 And preliminary figures indicate an increase of 3.7 percent in the number of violent crimes in the first half of 2006, when compared to figures reported for the first six months of 2005.2
This problem is not limited to the nation’s mega-metropolitan areas. According to a recent article in USA Today, mid-sized cities such as Louisville, Memphis, Orlando, Trenton and others are all struggling with crime.3 The title of a report released last year by a national police advocacy and research firm describes violent crime in America as “A Gathering Storm.”4 According to the report, Americans were lulled into a false sense of security because they believed they had escaped the high crime of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now cities across the country are awakening to a violent reality.
Stewart Engineering opted for a proactive approach in response to the unsettling statistics reported by these studies. Working with the Raleigh Police Department, Stewart Engineering developed an urban safety training program for all of its field employees. “We have always placed the highest importance on supplying our employees with the best equipment and training available,” says Willy Stewart, president and CEO of Stewart Engineering. “And now with the advent of this training course, we are providing our employees with a new tool to ensure their safety.”
Setting a Safer CourseCrime Prevention Officer Charles Taylor of the Raleigh Police Department presents the urban safety course designed to give Stewart Engineering’s surveyors an advantage in the field and in their personal lives. The hour-long presentation is now a mandatory part of field training and is offered periodically throughout the year for new employees. Crime prevention officers can also amend the presentation if new developments or laws change Stewart Engineering’s ability to keep its surveyors safe.
Taylor presents on aspects of safety specific to the industry, as well as aspects that many take for granted on a daily basis. “Safe behavior should be the first thing you think of in the morning,” Taylor tells Stewart’s employees. “There are precautions you can take to empower yourself.” Beyond driving safely and thinking intelligently and cautiously in unfamiliar situations, Taylor stresses specific behavior, routine and policy changes surveyors should adopt to remain safe on the job.
At a minimum, surveyors should be aware of where they leave equipment and possessions while working. If an iPod left unattended in a parked car is attractive to a thief, it only makes sense that one of the Leica Geosystems (Norcross, Ga.) TPS1205 total stations used by Stewart Engineering’s surveyors--worth around $25,000--would make any thief’s year. “I’ve never taken a larceny report from the trunk of a car,” Taylor says laughing. “Don’t make it easy for them.” An even bigger no-brainer is always removing keys from the ignition. Taylor urges field staff to consider how often they leave the keys in their trucks while checking for a bench mark or even while surveying a site--and to immediately correct this unsafe practice.
Calling the CopsWhen faced with an uncomfortable situation, many people are reluctant to call the cops. But that is exactly what they should do. Taylor tells surveyors that in potentially dangerous areas or areas where they feel uncomfortable, the best thing to do is involve local police.
During the planning phase of a project, Taylor suggests that surveyors request police call histories or other available data pertaining to a specific area. These histories list the types of calls police receive from a given area. Some localities have police crime data loaded into their Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for public query. This information can give each employee a much better understanding of the type of environment they intend to enter.
To ensure quality surveying work without an incident, drastic measures, such as police escorts, may even need to be included into the project’s contract terms. To the surprise of many, Taylor says it is perfectly acceptable to call for a police escort or for assistance disbanding suspicious individuals from a jobsite. It is not difficult to arrange a police escort, and the cost is minimal when considering the safety of surveyors. A working relationship with the local police department in a firm’s area will allow both parties to facilitate a safe working environment for surveyors.
Exercising CautionIt is also important for surveyors to act cautiously when approached by local residents. Giving money or aid to “homeless” individuals can put field crews in an awkward situation. “I don’t want to say you can’t trust anyone,” Taylor says, “but, unfortunately, you can’t.”
Recently, one of Stewart Engineering’s field crews was approached by a woman who said she needed to take her child to the hospital. The crew decided to offer her money. Unfortunately, they realized over the next couple of days that she was using her child as a ploy. They heard her use the same line again and again to beg for donations from passers-by. Soon after, others looking for assistance showed up. It then became a full-time job to keep the site cleared of unwanted visitors.
Exercising extreme caution and professionalism is vital in these instances. While Stewart Engineering does not forbid its employees from helping those less fortunate in these types of situations, we do encourage staff to consider the implications and problems that may arise from these types of solicitation.
On the AlertThe urban safety training program also instructs surveyors to be aware of their surroundings. There are certain signs and visual cues field crews can watch for in urban environments. For instance, gangs, which are a component of the rising crime rate, mark their territory and are not subtle about their presence. Evidence of gang presence includes cryptic graffiti on abandoned buildings, overpasses or other places; individuals congregating together wearing similar colors; and tennis shoes strung around overhead utility lines. It is imperative that surveyors, as partners in the community, notify local law enforcement when any gang graffiti, individuals or displays are encountered. Most law enforcement agencies have gang task forces who interpret and monitor this culture and can direct counter measures to make the area safer.
Such signs are just one indicator of potential danger. Stewart Engineering’s field surveyors have also stumbled onto dozens of used hypodermic needles on a jobsite. In this instance, they had to be careful to avoid injury, but also to be wary of the drug culture that apparently thrived in the area. Stewart Engineering instructs and trusts its surveyors to use their best discretion in areas where they sense danger. In the safety course, Taylor encourages surveyors to call the police through 911 or a local police line if they sense they are in danger.
In the Line of FireAlthough the urban safety course stresses awareness and prevention, being on guard isn’t always enough to prevent a dangerous situation. The question our field crews wanted answered was: What if a surveyor, like Sadler, gets caught in a potentially violent situation with gang members, drug dealers, armed robbers or even an angry homeowner?
In the safety course, Taylor explains that humans have two basic reactions to danger, known as “fight or flight.” He does not suggest one option as better than the other, noting it’s a personal choice often dictated by circumstance. However, he does stress the importance of remaining calm and avoiding confrontation.
Because self-defense may be necessary at times, Taylor cautions that surveyors should familiarize themselves with self-defense laws, which typically differ from place to place. For example, Taylor points out that North Carolina law dictates that people being attacked can use the minimum amount of force used against them to defend themselves or a third party.
The ultimate lesson taught in Stewart Engineering’s course is summarized with one final warning from Taylor: “Don’t set yourself up to be a victim!” By learning how to watch for signals of danger and how to act more cautiously--and involve law enforcement when necessary--Stewart Engineering’s surveyors are much better equipped to preserve their safety while performing their jobs. “When you are on the job, you have to look out for No. 1,” Sadler says. “Then, and only then, can you really do your job to help a community.”
SidebarCrime Prevention Tips
• Do not leave valuables unattended or in plain sight.
• Use the buddy system whenever possible.
• Familiarize yourself with the area’s surroundings and be alert (avoid using cell phones).
• Do not enter situations where you feel uncomfortable.
• Be aware of symbols that mark gang territory (shoes tied around utility lines, cryptic graffiti, individuals wearing the same colors, etc.).
• Involve the police whenever necessary.
Sidebar 2Spreading the Word
Upon hearing of the Stewart Engineering safety initiative, other surveying and engineering firms and organizations across the state of North Carolina have expressed a similar interest in increasing safety training for their field members.
“In light of reports of surveyors’ equipment being stolen and surveyors being approached, we knew we needed to educate our crews on the appropriate steps to take when they are confronted or just feel uncomfortable while on the job,” says Simon Cox, PLS, president of the North Carolina Society of Surveyors (NCSS). “We do a lot of revitalization to neighborhoods, bringing them up to living standards. Unfortunately, people don’t always understand we are there to improve their quality of life and want to defend what they have.”
Crime prevention officers have been contacted by surveying firms and organizations across the state and asked to work with the Raleigh Police Department and Stewart Engineering to develop a location-specific course for each area.
Stewart Engineering is heartened by the prospect that this program could help surveyors both locally and throughout the nation. Equipping field surveyors with the latest and greatest technology is important, but surveyors also need to be prepared to deal with all types of hazards they face in their jobs.