Rotator 101

by Larry Styba —

Before you get in any tow truck, you have to know how to use it.

Since Discovery Channel started airing Highway Thru Hell and their most recent towing reality show Heavy Rescue: 401, the image of the rotator has been embedded in the public’s eyes as the ultimate tow truck, run by the very best operators.

It is with this fanfare that the towing industry’s logo of old the J-hook and chain could be replaced by a multi axle, multi winch, rotating tow truck as its new icon.

“If the rotator is the ‘king of the road,’ shouldn’t an “Ace” be behind the wheel?”

The mighty rotator, with its many flashing LED lights and state-of-the-art main control panels, makes a Geek Squad worker jealous. The rotator also has a remote control station for the operator — that looks like a mobile Atari game console with joystick controls — which offers the ability to work a few hundred feet away from the truck, getting closer to the casualty.

I don’t know about you, but I sure want the opportunity to flick the beacon switch, turn on the pto, and operate one of these bad boys. Truth be told, it is on my bucket list!

If the rotator is the “king of the road,” shouldn’t an “Ace” be behind the wheel?

Let us do a reality check: there are many drivers out there that need some serious training, as there are way too many unqualified drivers trying to operate light, medium, heavy, and super heavy tow trucks.

What does it takes to become the “Ace” of the towing industry’s “King of the Road”? Well, there is no better place to find this information than attending the American Towman Exposition (AT Expo) in Baltimore, Maryland. All the manufacturers are there, showing off their iron, and the industry’s best instructors are all on-hand to handle your questions.

At the AT Expo, WreckMaster hosted their annual two-day Rotator Seminar. There is a classroom presentation at the Baltimore Convention Center, then attendees are bussed to the M&T Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. The casualties for the hands on-portion are staged in the parking lot.

This past year, I was on a mission personally to learn how the sea containers are rigged — specifically what kind of resistance is actually on the rigging and how the Lead Instructors rig the can.

“If the operator is not trained properly by a certified instructor … this could spell the demise of the towing company.”

All you have to do is search “towing epic fails” on YouTube to see many tow trucks that have fallen over like a tree in the forest while recovering sea cans, and I wanted to know why and how that happens.

The test to determine if the Rotator Seminar is a success for the Lead Instructors and the Core Team at WreckMaster comes on the last day, when the students speak at the closing comments.

“I have a new found respect for the loads you can put on your rigging”

“I learned some new stuff. What an eye opener”

“I realized I really don't know much”

“Now I know why I broke the chain when I lifted that container” 

“Doing it properly takes a lot of work”

“Lot of numbers”

“I have had a rotator for a couple of months and realize there is more to it than just buying a truck” 

“I have a better understanding as to why things fail”

“I did not realize how the load changes when it is raised up”

These are profound comments coming from a group of experienced operators who obviously have attended the “school of hard knocks,” where they give you the test first then the lesson before finding the WreckMaster discipline.

“They are great tools, but if they are not used in the hands of a skilled operator, they are dangerous.”

There is some serious lack of training in the towing industry, and it seems to be not only a local issue, but also a worldwide issue! Let me get to the point. It is the responsibility of the owners of the company to make sure their operators are properly trained before they even step foot into a tow truck — regardless of its size!

If the operator is not trained properly by a certified instructor — and there are many out there — this could spell the demise of the towing company, should a catastrophic event happen out on the road. They may be visiting with WorkSafeBC (or whomever their local watch dogs may be) more than they care for!

All I can say is this: after the first ten minutes of learning the numbers regarding towing sea cans (and how dangerous they are and how uneducated we are on those units), we had a new company policy in place immediately!

WreckMaster has just recently launched their Level 8/9 R course in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Tow Canada Magazine has asked Lead Instructor Bruce Campbell to shed some light on rotator tow trucks and the different types of training that are available to the tower, and to bust or confirm a few myths about towing’s newest icon.

Tow Canada: When a towing company or an individual purchases a rotator tow truck, what kind of training is available to them?

Bruce Campbell: Normally, the manufacturers are showing you how to use the piece of equipment, how it works, and how the systems that are built into the truck work. They show you some manufactured things that may be different between the different manufacturers, and what you can do and what you cannot do with the truck.

The legs, the boom, the winching, lifting, and some of the safety features that are with the truck you purchased.

Now we [WreckMaster] teach you about the loads, the forces, and the risks and hazards that you may encounter on a daily basis.

For example, the manufacturers show you how to put the legs down with the pads. Then we will show you where you may need extra cribbing on the different environments, and what forces are being exerted depending on what you are lifting and where the forces are on the rigging.

TC: What is the difference between the Baltimore Tow Show Seminar you host, which is 12 hours in length, and the actual new 8/9 R class?

BC: The 8/9 R is five days long. The 8/9 portion is 3 days and the R [rotator] portion is two days. The difference between the seminar and the class is that in the seminars, you are not “certified,” and you do not get certification unless you go to the actual class. When you pass the class, you get certified, and you then receive the rare 8/9R Certification coin and your new identification card. Once you achieved the 8/9R, it is non-expiry, which means you do not have to re-certify, and you can attend any class as a “sit-in” anywhere once you get to that level at no cost.

TC: What are some myths about the rotator? Some people say stick the legs [outriggers] out all the way out and some people say stick them out only half way or not at all…Myth?

BC: The biggest myth is that rotators are heavy, and they are great for recovery work, but you have to be careful how you put the legs down or out for lifting and recovery. They are great tools, but if they are not used in the hands of a skilled operator, they are dangerous. When you use a rotator to do lifting and recovery work a stiff boom can do, the same procedures are used, but not off the side.

“They knew it was heavy, but had no idea what the loads were to lift.”

We teach that, whenever possible, put the legs out all the way out on both sides. Sometimes you don’t put the legs out, because of lane restrictions, but what we do teach you is to put the leg out on the opposite side of where you’re doing the lift, and put it at least the distance that the house sticks out past the body of the wrecker on that side, so that no one will hit the house as they drive by, they will only hit the legs.

Basically, when you come to our rotator class in Fayetteville, North Carolina, we are going to teach you how to set it up, how to watch for overhead hazards such as powerlines and underground utilities as well as septic systems, and fibre optic cables, and how far away you are supposed to be from excavations when you do a lift.

We are also going to teach you about the tip load and what the capacity of the truck is, so you do not get into a predicament where the legs lift off the far side.

Most people do not know what forces they are applying to the rigging, so we use a 40-foot sea container to show them the angles of the lines down to the corners of the boom, and they cannot actually believe how much force or load is on the rigging at different angles, and how it drastically changes from 60 degrees to 30 degrees.

TC: In Baltimore, when you had the can picked up at the furthest distance, was the rotator at the maximum?

BC: That was at the maximum that the rigging could accommodate… We are not showing you tipping. We are showing you that you can get out so far, and that the loads on the rigging and the line increase, so we bring it just below the rated capacity of the winch lines, the v bridles, and the rigging.

TC: How do you know what the numbers are on the rigging?

BC: We put a load cell on the corner of the rigging. This validates the maximum that the rigging can accommodate to stay with in the working load limit.

TC: I believe that some of the people who are already running a rotator truck are quite overwhelmed when they come to the seminar and realize the amount of forces that can be applied to the rigging. Would you agree?

BC: That is exactly what happens! They are getting awareness of what exactly the loads are, and some of them had no idea before. They knew it was heavy, but had no idea what the loads were to lift. A lot of times, guys were doing these loaded containers with one truck, yet most times you need two trucks depending on the load: what is the load, how heavy is it, and what kind of rigging do you have? One of the biggest problems they have is that they are bringing chains through the pockets and that is where most of these failures occur. They are lifting the containers and the chain breaks and then then the shifting load tips the truck over because the D/d ratio [see diagram] is insufficient.

“Ultimately, the person responsible for the failure is the last person who touched the levers.”

TC: What is the difference between a rotator tow truck and a crane that rotates? Some crane people need mandatory certification. Is a rotator not a crane?

BC: Cranes commonly lift great weights at great heights, and rotators lift great weights at low heights and have the capability of winching with a number of lines. The difference between a rotator and a crane is that rotators can winch loads over uneven ground. Most cranes rated over a certain capacity have to be certified, but most rotators in most states do not need to be certified. A big difference is that you cannot winch with a crane; they just do vertical lifts. Second of all, most rotators have more than one line, so you can balance the load if you have to; whereas cranes pick in one central location most times, yet there are some cranes that have more than one winch. Some cranes do have multiple lines, yet up-righting of a piece of equipment is difficult if they need more than one attachment point. And cranes have great difficulty accomplishing that when their centre of gravity is different, and it takes them a lot longer to get organized for the lift than the rotator.

“Why would we want to endanger our existence by not being educated on the equipment we operate?”

TC: Whose black rotator are you using for the seminar in Baltimore this year?

BC: The truck was brought to us by Miller Industries and is a Century 1150. Miller Industries supplies us with the equipment we need, and we appreciate that very much.

TC: Who do you believe is responsible for training the operator of a new truck, or for that fact, any truck?

BC: The owner, then the operator! Ultimately, the person responsible for the failure is the last person who touched the levers, and if he is not properly trained, he has no business touching it.

The towing and recovery industry is already a dangerous enough place, as our work zones get compromised by public road users who ignore the slow down and move over laws. Why would we want to endanger our existence by not being educated on the equipment we operate?

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Tow Canada.

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