Co-op lineworkers stay safe and keep the lights on
National studies repeatedly rank the job of an electric lineworker among the most dangerous in the country. And while the danger of working directly with high voltage cannot be denied, Kentucky’s electric cooperatives are full of outstanding individuals who go out in all elements to get the power back on as quickly and safely as possible.
But the job has its perks—among them working outside, providing a vital service to the community, quality benefits (like insurance and retirement plans) and quality people.
Kenny Brown, now the operations and training coordinator at Nolin RECC, says one of those quality people got him interested in the job. As a young boy, Brown watched a neighbor lead by example.
“If I was ever out in the yard or out in the field, I would watch him go by in the bucket truck and it just fascinated me,” Brown recalls. “I lived in a small town, so becoming a lineman was very difficult. They were looking more toward guys that were already settled and had a family … I didn’t actually get started till I was 28.”
That same lineman called Brown to let him know he was retiring. “He said, ‘If you want a job, you need to go put in for it.’”
That was in 1986, and Brown has been working in the field ever since, though not just at Nolin RECC. Life led him out of state for a while, but upon his return to Kentucky, he worked for a contractor that worked with Nolin, and then joined Nolin again as a crew leader.
“Nolin has really reached out,” Brown says. “They took good care of me. And they’re good people to work for. I’ve really enjoyed this occupation, and this place.”
The job has changed quite a bit over the last 37 years, he says.
“Pretty much every hole was dug was with a spade and spoon or post hole diggers,” Brown says.
Joe Brown, a lineworker at Meade County RECC for the past 20 years, says the gear and ergonomics have changed, too.
“When I first started, everybody would wear the same rubber sleeves or protectors or whatnot,” Brown says. “You’d pass them over to each other. It didn’t matter if they fit or not. Now, everything is lighter weight. Everything is custom to you. It’s just a whole lot better.”
Both Kenny and Joe agree that training and safety protocols have been impacted for the better.
“There’s definitely a lot more schooling on safety,” says Joe Brown. “The standards on safety are just unreal. We’ve done a really good job with that.”
“As technologies advance, you need to train,” Kenny Brown says. “And I’m a firm believer that you need to be taught how to by books, as well as out on the job.”
In his role as crew leader, and now as a training coordinator, Kenny Brown has a hand in shaping and teaching younger, less experienced lineworkers as they join the team at Nolin RECC.
One of those lineworkers was Ryan Ray, who is now a crew leader himself. Ray has worked for Nolin RECC for about eight years.
“I wouldn’t choose anybody else to learn underneath because he explains things thoroughly,” Ray says. “He takes his time, but he also teaches. He had so much knowledge that he could just pour down on all of us. And (we’d) retain as much as you can, because he’s probably forgotten more than we know.”
Ray earned a teaching degree, but quickly realized he didn’t want to spend his career in a classroom. After talking with other lineworkers and doing research, Ray thought he would give the job a try.
“I’ve always worked outside and thought, ‘This is something I could do,’” he says. “And I pretty much picked it up and ran with it.”
He attended the Lineman Training Center at Somerset Community College, but the teaching degree still comes in handy.
“He’s an excellent teacher with the younger guys,” Kenny Brown says of Ray. “He takes time to help them, to train them. I mean, you couldn’t ask for any better.”
Like Ray, Shelby Energy’s Chandler Ping also trained in Somerset.
“I didn’t want to sit in the classroom, and I knew I wanted to be outside,” says Ping, who has worked at Shelby Energy for about five years. Ping went through the program with his best friend. They held each other accountable and are both working in the field today.
Ping says he likes being part of a local company and community.
“I like the fact that it’s a local job,” he says. “The fact that you’re able to come in and work with the same people and kind of be a part of a community. … It’s nice being able to build a life.”
Lineworkers of the future?
Several of Kentucky’s electric cooperatives employ a new kind of lineworker. One that Kenny Brown or Joe Brown most likely didn’t see coming at the beginning of their careers: fiber technicians.
Just as co-ops brought electricity to the rural parts of the state in the 1930s and ’40s, some cooperatives are working with local partners to take high-speed, fiber internet into rural areas today.
Austin Frank is a fiber optic installation and repair technician at Warren RECC. He attended Northwest Lineman College in California before moving to his wife’s home state of Kentucky. Frank initially worked in fiber optics, but then spent four years as an aerial lineworker, working on transmission lines. He began working at Warren in February of this year.
“I always wanted to work for an REC (rural electric cooperative),” Frank says. “I love Bowling Green, and I wanted to serve the community here.”
Through a partnership with the North Central Telephone Cooperative, Warren RECC provides high-speed internet to a large portion of its members in Warren, Butler, Edmonson and Grayson counties. (Another partnership with EPB Fiber helps bring internet to Simpson County.)
“Everybody that I’ve talked to that has NCTC/WRECC fiber absolutely loves it,” Frank says. “They don’t have a single issue or concern all the way from the installation to it running.”
From electricity to internet and beyond, what awaits the lineworkers of the future?
“They’ll probably see remote control bucket trucks,” Nolin’s Kenny Brown says, adding that he’s already heard of futuristic experiments in other countries. “You sit in a bubble in the air conditioning, and you ride up in the air and it’s got robotic arms that do the work.”
“In 20 years,” says Meade’s Joe Brown. “It’s going to be different, but I don’t think for the worse. I really think for the better. That’s what we’re looking for: to better ourselves and better our jobs.