Airport digital signage accident a 'wake-up call'

March 26, 2013 | by Christopher Hall

After news broke that a digital signage display enclosure toppled over and killed a 10-year-old boy in an airport in Birmingham, Ala., reached out to a variety of industry experts to talk about what might have gone wrong with the installation — and how deployers can take steps to make sure something similar doesn't happen in their locations.

An engineer from digital signage mounting specialist Chief said that, judging only by the news video of the accident site, it would be difficult to determine what went wrong in this situation. While there is apparent damage at the base of the enclosure, there is no way to determine from the short video available if that is what caused the unit to tip. Comments made by an eyewitness duing and on-the-scene interview indicated that there were no obvious fasteners or wall brackets on the enclosure, and that the display may have been held to the wall by a 'liquid nails"-type of adhesive.

But even in advance of a definitive answer for what went wrong, who installed the display or whose equipment was used, the accident still shines a light on the need to better address safety in the digital signage industry, and perhaps to look at ways to minimize the risk of that kind of dangerous failure.

As it turns out, there's already just such a safety initiative going on, but aimed at residential display mounting.

Sanus, a sister brand to Chief under the Milestone AV Technologies banner, for the last two years has been working on a safety program for the residential side of the display mount business. The effort came in the wake of numerous injuries and fatal accidents from insufficiently secured and un-mounted displays in the home.

"Properly secured TVs are the safest option to prevent something like this from happening," said Ryan Hagberg, the director of marketing for Sanus.

The Sanus brand started an initiative about two years ago to raise awareness of the importance of mounting and securing displays in the home using a secondary source of securement, said Laurie Englert, the vice president of marketing for Chief, but the same holds true for digital signage, and there's a need to start at the lowest technical level of the process and educate people about proper secure mounting, she said.

In light of some interesting engineering observations and opinions, that just might be the case.

"A secondary source of securement"

Scott Libby, an engineer and director of product development for Chief, said he was watching news video of the accident scene showing seven or eight men lifting the display enclosure back into an upright position when he noticed something interesting.

"It is not obvious from the news video whether or not display enclosure was secured to the floor," he said. "On the basis of the video commentary it seems unlikely that this enclosure and mounting solution would have gone through a third-party verification and certification. The reason I bring that up is that there is a UL standard that covers mounting of video displays.

"This standard requires that mounts be tested with four times, or 4X, rated load. This certification also covers the anchoring hardware that is used to attach the mounts to the supporting structure," he said. "The reason for the loading mounts with 4X the rated load is to provide a factor of safety for the entire installation."

Companies like Chief already have started looking at side loading because they know it's a potential failure mode for deployments, Libby said. They already try to anticipate how people might lean on, misuse or misplace a piece of equipment and then try to anticipate and mitigate those failure potentials before the product is even released, he said.

"That said, even safe and certified product can be improperly installed. UL does review our installation instructions to validate the products are tested as they intended to be installed," he said. "In order for this to have the desired effect of a safe final installation, the instructions have to be followed and the supporting structure that is being mounted to needs to able hold the load."

Chief does training and provides online support in this area, Libby said, but there is very little visibility to installation verification. "I believe this is an area where improvement can make a difference. This would likely involve building codes and third-party product certification being advanced together."

Particularly with a display that by all accounts simply tipped over, whether it was mounted to the floor or the wall of the airport, anything that is not evenly balanced — in technical terms an asymmetric load — should be looked at in different light going forward, he said.

Changing building codes and product certification programs take time. A more immediate response could be the addition of a secondary attachment. "Anytime that you have a floor-mounted weight that is off-center like that, we should be looking at a secondary source of securement," he said. "It does to me, from a technical perspective, put a different light on the way we certify and regulate products.

"It does to me, from a technical perspective, put a different light on the way we certify and regulate products," he said.

And maybe that response, making sure there's a stronger "secondary source of securement" just needs to become part of the standard for digital signage, he said.

"Sanus' whole effort is focused on that, the secondary point of securement, and Sanus is primarily concerned about the statistic about kids getting hurt in homes," he said. "But specifically for public areas, if we can push to have that standard propagated maybe that's an appropriate approach."

Further steps to take

And looking at the issue from a digital signage and pro A/V distributor perspective, Brian Rhatigan, the business development manager at Almo Professional A/V, said that the accident could be a call for distributors to pay more attention to safety from their end as well.

"This may bring kind of a whole new idea or method of training to light for distributors, because honestly other than product training … there hasn't really been a huge focus on the actual safety," he said. "We almost take it for granted that the contractor or integrator is aware of the safety practices that need to take place, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of emphasis on that from distribution."

Rhatigan said that is something Almo would be interested in working on with its vendor partners, to make sure that salespeople are at least aware of some basic standards and criteria for safety that they can bring to light for customers.

Nathan Bohl, the director of product management for Chief, said the display enclosure looked to be a custom piece, perhaps designed as a "one-off" for this deployment, which is not uncommon for the digital signage industry. But when something that heavy and that unusual is being placed in a public setting, it's critically important to have everyone in the project involved, from the architect to the contractor to the integrator, he said.

"A prime example right now," he said is a project Chief is doing for a customer who is asking for a large, five-by-five, ceiling-mounted and -hung video wall. That's more than 2,000 pounds of screens alone, not including the mounting structure, he said. So Chief is constantly talking to the architects, the integrator, and everyone involved, he said, because the video wall will be over people's heads, and things like air flow and potential swaying of the piece have to be taken into account.

"Especially on these large, heavy and custom design pieces, having everyone involved is very important, just so you cover all your bases," he said.

"I think this is just a big wake-up call for the industry" Englert said. She mentioned another project where a display in a conference room hadn't been hung properly and fell, luckily not hitting anyone when it did. "If you don't have a professional mounting it it appropriately, we can't just take that lightly. This was in a conference room, so it fell and shattered and no one was hurt, but it does make you realize someone could've easily gotten hurt. Somebody is going to get hurt."

Watch a news report from Good Morning America on the airport accident:

(Image taken from the GMA video.)

(Editor's note: Some of the interview comments have been changed from the original version of this article to reflect repeated viewings of the accident video.)

Learn more about digital signage integration and installation.

Topics: Hardware , Installation / Integration

Companies: Chief , Almo Professional A/V

Christopher Hall / Christopher is the editor of A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.
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