The Electrical Worker Online (2024)

More than a week after late-May storms and tornadoes toppled poles, ravaged high-voltage lines and left 70,000 Louisville Gas & Electric customers without power, the company's IBEW crews were still in the field at least 16 hours a day.

"We've barely slept and I haven't seen my son since Saturday, but we'll be here until the job is done. That's what we do," Brandon Combs of Louisville, Ky., Local 2100 said with pride on the 10th day of restoration.

Pop-up storms delayed progress, cranking up the humidity along with residents' tempers. But the linemen met every challenge — just like their brothers and sisters whenever and wherever Mother Nature wreaks havoc across North America.

Lineman Appreciation Day on July 10 is an opportunity for the rest of us to say thank you.

"Our linemen and linewomen make us proud every single day, whether it's the aftermath of a storm or routine maintenance," International President Kenneth W. Cooper said. "Even with generations of safety improvements, they are still doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. And no one does it better. We all owe them a debt of gratitude."

The IBEW chose July 10 to salute its line workers in honor of the union's first president, Henry Miller, who died on that day in 1896.

Miller was working storm recovery in Washington, D.C., when he came in contact with a live wire and fell from a power pole. Only five years before, he'd helped found the IBEW, determined to give workers a voice in an industry with a mortality rate as high as 50% for linemen.

The IBEW and bipartisan allies in Congress have been pushing in recent years to make July 10 a national day of recognition for lineworkers. Members in California succeeded a decade ago, with passage of a 2014 resolution establishing July 10 as Lineman Appreciation Day.

Utility Director Donnie Colston, who spent decades as a Local 2100 lineman, said an official day of appreciation is about much more than a well-deserved pat on the back.

"We want the public to understand that IBEW linemen are essential workers who risk their lives every day," he said. "They are responders, no different than police officers and firefighters. Think about any accident involving a power pole and live wires. Police and paramedics can't get near it until we do our jobs."

Linemen are famous for not complaining about their work, no matter how tough it gets. But like Colston, many of today's linemen wouldn't mind people knowing more about it.

"Being a lineman is a big part of our lives, and yet the general public doesn't understand how power gets to them, let alone who's out there repairing it and what's necessary to do that," said Jeremy Tarbay, a lineman and business representative at Johnstown, Pa., Local 459.

Combs, chief shop steward for Local 2100 at LG&E, agreed. "People take for granted that they can flip a switch and the light comes on, and when it's cold the heat comes on, or when it's hot, the air-conditioning starts up," he said. "When that doesn't happen, they get antsy."

Precious few people suffering in extreme heat stop to think about the physical toll on the men and women scrambling up and down power poles in long pants, rubber gear, and heavy belts and safety harnesses.

"We feel the heat, but it doesn't stop us. We kind of push that stuff to the back of our heads," said Rene Ortega, president of Local 960 in El Paso, Texas, where summer highs last year hit at least 110 degrees for five weeks straight. "It does get to a point, though, where you basically feel like you're getting cooked."

Weather extremes are only one of many perils for lineworkers, as Ortega knows all too well. A few years ago, working maintenance on high-voltage lines, he suffered a serious flash burn.

"It felt like someone was putting an iron to the side of my face," he said, describing seeing "a big ball of light, like the sun's right in front of you. It felt like an eternity, but it was probably less than two seconds."

His second-degree burns healed, and he loves his job as much as ever. He takes particular joy in showing youngsters his bucket truck and equipment. "The kids see us climbing poles and they're intrigued, so we like to show them what we have and how it works."

Many adults, though, could use a nudge. "We're kind of the forgotten first responders," Ortega said. "To get that recognition, Lineman Appreciation Day, would be huge, and it would help people understand the services we provide, and not just in summertime."

Legislation or not, linemen have no end of stories about appreciative customers. It's just that the affection is often after the fact.

Take, for instance, the welcome that Combs and his crew got when they arrived at an isolated cluster of homes a few days after the Memorial Day weekend storms south of Louisville.

"There was a lot of damage, and the residents, three or four of them, came at us like a pack of wolves," he said. "'We've been waiting four days! What's taken you so long?!'"

The linemen listened with empathy, understanding their frustration — in fact, Combs' own power had been out for two days.

"You've got to let them talk first and not cut them off," Combs said. "When we finally were able to explain the process and how calls are prioritized, they started to calm down. And that's usually the way these things go. When you get things fixed, it's a full 180 — 'You're the best people in the world! Thank you so much! Are you thirsty?'"

On a mutual-aid trip to Florida after Hurricane Irma in 2017, a woman began raging at Tarbay's crew as soon as they pulled up in their FirstEnergy truck.

"You learn to have that personal touch," he said. "I told her: 'We're doing our best. We just got here from Pennsylvania, and we're going to be here until the job is done."

He explained the extra measure of care they had to take to adjust to another utility's systems and ensure everyone's safety, adding, "I've got to make sure I get home to my little kids, too."

Tarbay saw her face and body language shift instantly from adversary to ally. "She was a beekeeper, and in the end she brought us all jars of honey to take home," she said.

Colston, who spent decades in the field out of the Louisville local, chuckled at one of his stories — the memory of a customer who demanded to know where he'd been for all the days she'd been without power.

"I said, 'My wife wants to know that, too."

The Electrical Worker Online (2024)

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