May 30, 2017
The story of Above All Tower Climbing began more than a decade ago, when a 911 call center asked firefighter paramedics Jack and Shama Ray to use their climbing skills for an emergency involving a malfunctioning antenna on a telecommunications tower. The 911 call center couldn’t find a tower crew that was available to fix the antenna and asked if the Rays could do the job. They were willing and able. Jack had received extensive training in high-angle rescue and ropes and rappelling. Shama had extensive leadership experience and had received rescue training in the emergency services. Today, Jack is director of operations for Above All Tower Climbing in Bonne Terre, Missouri, and Shama is the company’s owner and CEO.
“Jack climbed the tower with ease, as if he were born to climb towers, and he fixed the antenna in a timely professional manner,” Shama said. “The center called us back again for 911 work. Then a fire department called us, and then a radio station. We decided that this might make a good part-time business. That was more than 10 years ago.”
Shama said she and Jack started lining up what they needed for a full-time business. They assembled and trained tower crews. In August 2012, they started the business, and after four months they had so much work, they didn’t know what to do with it.
Above All Tower Climbing now does just about every kind of tower work above ground level. “We’re a turnkey company,” Shama said. “We do guy-wire replacement, plumb and tensioning; structural modifications; tower builds; civil work; tower painting and lighting; shelter installing; tree cutting; and maintenance.”
Safety Is Everything
Shama said she and Jack started out as firefighter paramedics and worked their way up. She said they work well together because they both put safety first. “Safety is one of the most important things to me, as the owner of the company,” she said. “I’m highly involved in making sure that my crews are safe and everyone comes home at night.”
Shama developed a dedicated hard-work regimen to pass the rigorous physical exams necessary to become a firefighter, despite her petite frame. “When I first became a firefighter paramedic, I weighed about 95 pounds soaking wet,” she said. “I started out as a paramedic and had leadership responsibilities, and then I decided I wanted to go into the firefighter academy.”
It wasn’t easy to become a firefighter, Shama recalled. “Before you take the firefighter exam, the physical exam, you take a test that you have to complete in seven minutes,” she said. “I trained on a Keiser sled [a simulated forcible-entry sledgehammering machine designed for fire-service training] day after day, hitting it 4 feet one way and then back the other way, to get my time down — and I practiced every day. And, when I finished, my time ended up being about 5:40.” The test simulates the use of a sledge hammer to provide ventilation or to gain entry.
Unlike her husband, Shama had little experience climbing towers. As a firefighter paramedic and chief medical officer, her role was more about leadership. She ran crews and performed teaching and training. As chief medical officer, she was in charge of the safety, training and education of the entire department. “The reason I personally got into tower climbing is because I wanted to know what my crews were going through,” Shama said. “I didn’t know I was going to like climbing.”
Shama initially intended to manage the company and its financials. But she also wanted to experience what her crews faced. Now, if crews come to her and say, “We can’t get this done,” she can reply, “Yes, you can. I’ve done it myself.” Or, on the other hand, she can say, “Yes, you’re right. It’s unsafe. You guys shouldn’t be up there. Pull the crews down.”
The first time her company conducted a training session, Shama said the employees climbed a tower, and she decided to take the training, too. “I went through the training and I loved it,” she said. So, Shama started climbing towers in addition to her management responsibilities. She said with the time it takes to manage the company today, she doesn’t climb towers as much as she used to.
With regular visits to worksites to check on the crews, Shama makes sure that safety requirements are enforced and that the work is going well. “Your crews must be accountable. You have to let them know that you are going to be enforcing the rules and that you are going to be making sure that they’re safe,” she said.
Shama said she believes safety is becoming increasingly important to the tower industry. “I’ve noticed that, from the tower owners to carriers, we are really putting an emphasis on safety,” she said. “I love to see that. I have a passion for safety. Safety has advanced so much from what it was in the old days.”
Business Is Booming
Above All Tower Climbing’s business is starting to boom, and the company is expanding. It recently purchased 27 acres of land. The company is building a facility on its new campus, expected to be completed in late 2017, only five years after Jack and Shama opened its doors. . “We’re putting on three to five more crews initially, and by the end of 2018, we are going to have about 40 crews,” Shama said. She also plans to hire full-time electrical technicians and structural engineers to perform technical work that the company now subcontracts out as needed.
Lately, Above All Tower Climbing has been performing as much tower construction as tower maintenance. “It’s about 50/50 this year,” Shama said. “We’re doing several big tower build projects this year. So far, the company has built about 40 complete towers.”
In addition to cell tower construction and maintenance, the company performs substantial 911 work, drawing on Shama and Jack’s experience in fire and emergency medical service (EMS) work. “We do really well with fire departments, EMS and police departments, and we do some other government work, too,” Shama said. The company also works on radio towers, and Shama said the company is not opposed to offering service for TV broadcasting towers, although it hasn’t yet broken into that market.
These days, Shama said customers seem to be coming to Above All Tower Climbing, so the company has less need to find customers.
“Our company believes in quality, integrity and doing things right the first time,” Shama said. “We believe you can’t cut corners. We’re different from a lot of companies out there — we care about our customers, we care about our employees and, overall, we just care about humanity. We believe in helping people in general. We come from a fire and EMS background, so our roots are in helping people and in doing things the right way.”
Another secret to Above All Tower Climbing’s success lies in its specializing in niche markets. According to Shama, not many tower service companies deal with guy-wire tensioning, installation and removal because of the danger involved. She believes her company can do that kind of work right because it’s so highly involved with training and it makes safety a number one priority.
“There’s nothing that my director of operations — Jack Ray — cannot handle when it comes to mechanics,” Shama said. “He’s not an engineer, but when it comes to engineering, he makes sure everything is done right. We complement each other in a way that just makes our company soar.”
Safety and, in particular, enforcing safety procedures, remain the tower industry’s biggest challenge, Shama said. She believes everything lines up correctly after safety steps are established and followed. “We follow all American National Standards Institute (ANSI), National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) standards and policies,” she said. “We follow what has been set in stone, basically.”
Shama said that she believes that the tower industry’s old-school, I’ve-always-done-it-this-way culture is changing. “Many wireless communications carriers and many tower owners are now enforcing safety from the top,” she said. “You have to start at the top, because if you can’t start there, it’s really hard to enforce safety at the bottom. I believe that once you enforce something from the top, it trickles down.”
Above All Tower Climbing always tries to do things the right way, Shama said, “We don’t cut corners, and we try to work with integrity,” she said. “I try to follow the Good Book. God is important to me. And I owe everything I have and everything in this company to God. I believe that in itself is making sure that we’re able to get out there and let people know who we are. Sometimes we will turn down work if we know it’s not being done with honesty, and especially if we believe things can’t be done safely.”
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas.
Shama Ray, owner and CEO of Above All Tower Climbing, said an important aspect of the tower industry that she has come to appreciate most is role played by the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE).
“NATE makes so many resources available, and they’ve just been so helpful,” she said. “I wish we had joined with them in the very beginning.”
Ray said NATE is especially helpful to smaller companies such as hers. She serves as a committee member of the Women of NATE (WON) and spoke about WON at the NATE southwest conference in Phoenix on May 3.
“Women have come forward in leaps and bounds,” Ray said. “People are starting to see that women do have a lot to offer to the tower industry. I just feel like it’s a great combination. Men and women don’t think the same. They have two different points of view to offer. And when it comes to safety, it’s very important to make sure you’ve gone over every possible scenario. You must make sure that everything is being done, and that there’s no way something can go wrong.”