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League of Linemen at Kentucky’s electric cooperatives

[soliloquy id=”14125″]Lineman Rodeo shows off safety, skills, and bonds among those who keep the power going

On every dark and stormy night of the year, your local electric cooperative linemen are on call. In dangerous weather, freezing temperatures, or scorching heat, they work to maintain, build, and restore the electric infrastructure for thousands of residents and businesses in the commonwealth.

With their unique set of skills and pride in a job safely done, these linemen spend so much time together in perilous conditions that they build a bond of brotherhood that few outside the occupation understand.

“When you work all night and all day with somebody, and put in an 80- or 90-hour week during a storm, you see your co-workers more than you see your family,” says Kris Cunagin, a service technician with Jackson Energy Cooperative.

At the annual Kentucky Lineman’s Rodeo, the members of this unique family get together to celebrate their job, challenge one another in friendly competition, and demonstrate their safety and skills. The rodeo is a fun yet competitive event where individual linemen and teams of three compete in events that emphasize on-the-job safety. It’s hosted by a different cooperative each year. The 2016 rodeo is set for September 29–30, hosted by Shelby Energy Cooperative.

“Being a lineman is a lot of after-hours and in-the-middle-of-the-night hard work. I don’t think people really understand what we do. At the rodeo, there’s a lot of good competition, but it’s kind of like a reunion with the other linemen,” says Tony Bach, field distribution supervisor at Owen Electric Cooperative, who competed as an apprentice lineman in the first rodeo in 2005.

Co-hosted by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives (KAEC), the Kentucky Lineman’s Rodeo takes place over two days and showcases the day-to-day skills of more than 100 linemen representing 21 of the 26 cooperatives. The individual rodeo events, which include Apprentice, Journeymen, and Senior division events, are held the first day; the team events are held on the second day.

How it works
The events are set up in “stations” around the rodeo grounds, and the individual and/or team’s number will be drawn randomly to determine in which station and in what order they will compete. A 30-minute break between each event gives linemen an opportunity to rest, but at any given time during the rodeo, a team or individual will be going through the paces at one of the events.

Each individual lineman or team is given 100 points for each event, and two judges at each station rank the individuals and the teams. Points are deducted from the total score for safety infractions: two points, for example, for a small infraction like dropping a nut; or 10 points for a more serious safety infraction, such as falling off the pole. In each event, the goal is to keep all 100 points and do so at a speed that is faster than the three or four other teams that might also perform flawlessly.

The Skills Climb and Hurt Man Rescue, two perennial rodeo events, go quickly, but the work events, such as changing out a transformer or cross-arm installation, are more tedious, time-consuming, and nerve-wracking.

“The rodeo’s an awesome experience, and it’s by far the greatest training tool we have,” says Travis Garner, lineman for Warren RECC. “When you do something over and over again, you get comfortable doing it on the job, but at the rodeo, you have hundreds of people watching, and the adrenaline is pumping.”

Many of the linemen also participate at the International Lineman’s Rodeo, held annually in Bonner Springs, Kansas, where more than 200 teams from around the world compete. At this “Super Bowl” rodeo, teams from Kentucky are up against linemen from Brazil, Australia, England, and Canada.

Building a team
The overall winner of the Kentucky Rodeo takes home for one year a massive chrome transformer mounted on a large, polished wooden box affectionately called “The Holy Transformer.” The Jackson Energy 1 team, comprised of Kris Cunagin, Royce Baker, and Jeremy Rayborn, is the only team in the state to have won the Overall Team trophy in back-to-back rodeos, in 2014 and 2015. While they owe their success to communication, respect for the job, and respect for one another, it was an accident that led them to becoming a team. 

Two weeks before the 2014 rodeo, Justin Robinson, another Jackson Energy lineman who was on a team with Rayborn and Baker in 2013, broke his hand in an off-job accident. Baker, who had been to the rodeo only once before as a groundman, stepped up to Robinson’s spot as lineman, and Cunagin, who works largely alone as service technician and had never been part of a rodeo team before, became the groundman.

“We weren’t as good by ourselves, but put us together and it just clicked,” Baker says. They practiced only twice as a team before the rodeo, but dominated the event course and won the Overall Team title for 2014. 

“We got good real fast because we had to,” Rayborn says. “I’m short, he’s tall. I’m fast, he’s muscle, and Kris holds us together.”

Coming this month
This year’s rodeo will be at the Shelby County Fairgrounds in Shelbyville. The event is free and open to the public. The individual events in the Apprentice, Journeymen, and Senior divisions start around 8 a.m. September 29, and the opening ceremony for the team events starts at 7 a.m. September 30 with a flag-raising memorial in honor of fallen linemen. Food and merchandising vendors are also on hand throughout the day, and the event scores are tallied in the afternoon, followed by an award ceremony.   

“These guys don’t normally get to see each other unless there is a storm situation where they would be pitching in to help,” says Clarence Greene, director of Safety/Loss Prevention with KAEC and one of the rodeo coordinators. “The rodeo brings them together in the spirit of competition and lineman brotherhood.”

Learning to be a lineman
Are you interested in becoming a lineman? Do you have what it takes? The career comes with the physical challenges of long hours and hard work, and linemen need confidence and common sense to handle the dangers of working on or near a 7,200-volt live wire. These challenges place the occupation of lineman among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the flip side, the career also comes with excellent pay, job security, and pride in knowing they help the public every day.

Prospective linemen can get the training they need through the WorkForce Training Solutions department at campuses of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System in Maysville, Hazard, and Somerset—home to the Lineman Training Center. Instructors are former linemen who prepare apprentice-level students for employment in the electrical industry with both academic and hands-on training.

Students learn accident prevention, such as proper care and storage of tools and equipment, as well as safety rules and procedures. Students spend nearly 200 hours in training activities to demonstrate proficiency in 80 different skills, including simulated emergency storm restoration, tool and equipment operation, digger and bucket truck operation, and rigging.

Linemen hopefuls also spend 80 hours in introductory-level academic training on subjects such as electrical systems, transformers, material identification, personal protective grounding, map reading, and systems operations.

In addition to the academic and field work, linemen earn their Class A commercial driver’s license, plus certifications in CPR, first aid, pole-top rescue, and flagging training.

The course costs $3,500 and is offered every nine weeks year-round.  Applicants must be 18 years old, must possess a high school diploma or GED, and must be able to pass a Department of Transportation drug test and physical.

Want to go watch?

Hosted by Shelby Energy, the 2016 rodeo will be September 29–30 at the Shelby County Fairgrounds in Shelbyville. The event is free and open to the public. Individual events are on Thursday. Team events are on Friday.

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