Through the nights and through the storms, linemen love keeping your lights on
Job satisfaction often comes one glowing window at a time for co-op linemen.
They are the caretakers of the invisible energy that powers everything from accent lighting to zone heating. Linemen ride the ridges and highways maintaining a multi-million-dollar system, with tools that include 6-foot-long fiberglass “hot sticks” and insulated rubber gloves.
“Everyone wants their electricity when they need it,” says Darrell Scruggs, a foreman who has worked at South Kentucky RECC in Somerset for 22 years. “I wanted to be the person that helped our members keep their lights on or restore their electricity when there was an outage.
“It is a satisfying feeling of a job well-done when even just one member thanks you for getting their electric back on.”
To be fair, the word linemen is not totally fitting, as there are also women who work on the lines. At Nolin RECC in Elizabethtown, the title used is line technician. Diana Hawkins-Sullivan first began as a meter reader with Nolin RECC and has been doing the job of line technician for more than 10 years now.
Being caretakers of the lines means they are on notice 24 hours a day, seven days a week, climbing poles in the driving rain, frigid winter cold, or soaring summer heat.
For most of them, it’s the best job they’ll never leave.
“As much as anything, this is not just a job, it’s a career,” says Dennis Phelps, a lineman with 29 years of experience at Owensboro’s Kenergy cooperative. “They say today, a high school graduate will have six or eight jobs, but if you become a lineman, it will probably be your last job.”
There are certain traits that all linemen seem to possess. Talk to them about what they like about their jobs, and three things that come to the top of the list are working outdoors, seeing results (remember the glowing window?), and no day is ever the same.
Just ask Eddy Judd. He’s been working around electric lines at Jackson Energy Cooperative for 37 years. “I like working outside,” he says after coming in from a shift of doing maintenance work. “You see the scenery. You meet the people, and no job’s the same—the terrain’s always different; the people are always different.”
Judd was looking for a good-paying job near his Jackson County home when he applied for an opening at the electric cooperative. “I saw that electricity would always be something people would use,” adds the 56-year-old. “It would be a lasting job.”
Brad Story, a 20-year-old apprentice lineman working at Fleming-Mason Energy Cooperative, echoes Judd. He’s been climbing poles for eight months, and wanted a job that would let him stay in his hometown.
“I like working with my hands and working outdoors,” he says of his new career. “If I’m inside too much, I feel crowded.”
Story was attending vocational school, where he learned about electrical work in industrial maintenance courses, and applied for an opening at the co-op. “That first week,” he recalls, “I went to work at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday and worked straight through to Friday on outages. I got a good taste of what it would be like if we had a big storm.”
It’s the big storms that are the true test of a lineman’s endurance and whether or not he or she is meant to be in the profession.
Phelps and the other Kenergy linemen worked the last major ice storm in Kentucky. Actually, two ice storms hit the area in February. A second wave of ice coated electric lines and tree limbs just as the crews were making headway from the first storm. Winter’s wrath left behind 97 broken poles, and crews worked 16-hour days for 12 days before taking a break.
“The first couple of days were so chaotic,” Phelps says of working the storm. “There were so many hazards to the public that had to be fixed as soon as possible.”
Fellow lineman Mike Hagan recalls the damage that followed the ice. “We were trying to get lines on and it was just falling around us,” he says of the ice-coated lines and falling tree limbs.
Dennis Reynolds, a lineman with South Kentucky RECC, says it’s the weather-related outages that remind him of the potential dangers that go with working around live electric lines.
“I have never been in a ‘dangerous’ situation, but we all have to work in extremely adverse conditions, particularly weather-related outages,” he says. “There is nothing quite as dangerous as climbing an icy pole with tree limbs breaking and crashing around you.” Reynolds, who has been a co-op lineman since 2000, says the focus on safety that surrounds the profession doesn’t make the “everyday” jobs dangerous. “It’s when we have to work outside our normal jobs,” he adds, “in hazardous weather that, I think, our jobs become more dangerous.”
The storms they work aren’t limited to their own co-op territory. When a hurricane, ice storm, or tornado hits other regions of the country, Kentucky linemen often leave home to help.
Kenergy’s Tony Howard was among the crews that left Kentucky to work a particularly bad snowstorm a few years ago in North Carolina. “They got 36 inches of snow and the next day they had 65-mile-per-hour winds,” he says, setting the scene for the 16 days he spent helping with repairs. “The co-op territory was loaded with white pines and they had in excess of 300 broken poles.”
Whether it’s an ice storm or Hurricane Katrina, when linemen from different parts of the country gather to do their job, they all speak the same language. “Techniques may be a little different,” Howard explains, “but we’re all the same. After a 10-minute conversation, you can get in a truck and start working together.”
The experiences and the similarities led Phelps to compare the country’s network of linemen to a brotherhood. The linemen look out for one another, and safety is a constant companion in the trucks and on the lines.
Tony Boggs has been repairing lines in Jackson Energy’s service area for 36 years, and says the group of guys he works with is “always looking out for one another.”
“Safety is something you have to think about constantly,” he says. “You’ve just got to get up with a mental attitude every morning that you’re going to work safe.”
While the poles, the electric lines, and the safety issues have remained the same over the years, technology has made its way into the bucket truck. Most linemen now carry a laptop computer along with the hot sticks and rubber gloves.
“We pretty much use the same wire when we’re putting a line up as we did when I started here,” Boggs said, “but now all the paperwork is on computer.”
A few hundred miles away in Owensboro, Howard agrees that technology has changed the job since he first strapped on his pole climbers in 1979. “It’s a job that requires math skills and in-depth problem solving,” he says of 21st-century line work.
Hagan says while linemen have added computer skills to their résumé, some parts of the job will never change. “One thing about being a lineman, it doesn’t matter what kind of tools they come up with, as long as there are poles, electricity, and Mother Nature, you’ll always need linemen.”
They will be in the bucket truck looking for the glowing windows.
WATCH THE ACTION AT THE LINEMAN'S RODEO
If you’d like to see linemen in action, the public is invited to the Kentucky Lineman’s Rodeo on Friday, July 25, at South Kentucky RECC’s farm. The farm is located 3/4 of a mile west of the Fishing Creek Bridge on KY Highway 80 near Nancy. There is no charge and you might want to take along a folding chair.
The competition features linemen from across the state competing in categories that test their safety training and job skills.
For more information, go online to www.kaec.org/kyslp/rodeo.htm.
NEW KENTUCKY TRAINING CENTER FOR LINEMEN
If you think working as a lineman might be the job for you, Kentucky will soon have a school for utility linemen in Somerset. Ground was broken last December for the Kentucky Regional High Growth Training Center, located adjacent to Valley Oak Technology Complex in Pulaski County.
Current and future linemen will receive training at the site, which is designed to ease a predicted shortage of utility linemen.
Somerset Community College, part of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, will oversee instruction at the center. During the groundbreaking ceremony, Allen Anderson, CEO of South Kentucky RECC, noted that nearly 40 percent of South Kentucky RECC’s linemen will be eligible to retire in the next five years. “It is important to have trained workers ready.”
You can read a complete article about the groundbreaking of the Kentucky Regional High Growth Training Center on the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives’ Web site at www.kaec.org/info/archive07/linemenfacility.htm.
For more information on the training program, contact David Wiles, with the Somerset Community College Community, Workforce and Economic Development office, at (606) 451-6690.