We now, commonly refer to them as our “Heroes in White Hats”. But they didn’t always have white hard hats to wear…
Imagine it’s the turn of the century in the U.S., when the electric utility lineman profession was in its infancy. As an electric power lineman, your personal protective equipment was the bare minimum, and you had to make it yourself, because manufacturers of professional equipment didn’t exist. Hard hats were unheard of. You wore an old felt cap or a ball cap. Fedoras were quite popular – the upside being they were non-conductive and you could feel if you were bumping into something. The downside was that your head was unprotected from electric volts or things falling onto it.
Rubber gloves were unheard of. So was flame-retardant clothing. Bucket trucks hadn’t come into existence yet. You had to travel around on a horse-pulled carriage or a cart hauled by mules in the very early days, and a little later, you’d climb into a Model A pickup or a panel truck to get to your job. Another big change from today: your crew consisted of five to seven men.
The work was considered very dangerous, not just hazardous like it is today. You had no training or apprenticeships to guide you along safely in a complex industry. You got your tools when a lineman ahead of you died.
(Wichita, 1910′s) The photo above wouldn’t exactly
pass today’s safety standards.
(Substation work, 1940′s) Bucket trucks and other
equipment make work like this much safer today.
Gradually, as the number of lineman fatalities climbed to about 50 percent, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was born, and by the late 1930s safety practices started coming into being. This also led to the establishment of apprenticeship programs.
Over the years, the lineman’s crude wooden tools evolved to today’s efficient wrenches, climbing belts and live line tools. Everything today is professionally designed to cause less wear and tear on the lineman’s body. The advent of flame-retardant clothing has been a major lifesaver as well.
These 1970s-1980s era hooks, climbers, belts and
a positioning strap have been replaced with modern
tools that are more flexible and conform better to a
lineman’s body, relieving pressure and preventing sores
Today’s lineman is equipped with a back support and
D rings that slide with the body’s movements and float
on a separate strap within the belt positioned around
his hips. While most of this relates to comfort, it also
allows more freedom of movement for the lineman to
get in a better working position, In the end cutting down
on back, hip and shoulder injuries.
Climbing a tower, such as this 90’ structure in Topeka,
requires equipment that doubles the lineman’s safety
as he changes insulators. For example, the lineman
must “double skid.” Changes in recent times require
things like having a positioning strap around the pole
or tower at all times (hence, the need for two straps).
Also, tools like ”hook ladders” were designed to alleviate
the need for linemen to climb down the Insulators, or
“coon” the bells, as it was called — similar to how a
raccoon climbs down a tree limb to do its work.
Becoming a Westar Energy lineman
Among today’s professional linemen-journeymen at Westar Energy are three who are particularly well-versed in the modern and streamlined tools, personal protective equipment and comprehensive training enjoyed by 21st century linemen.
Steve, manager, field training, and Jay and Leo, field training coordinators, recently spent a couple of hours talking with Westar corporate communications staff about the tremendous advances in technology, safety and training since the early days of their profession.
Steve has been doing this job 35 years. When he started in the profession in 1978 fresh out of a stint with the U.S. Marine Corps and lineman school at Manhattan Technical College, bucket trucks were first coming into the picture. “Things were done predominantly off the pole before the bucket truck came about, and you’d go up the pole in the morning and maybe not come back down ‘til lunch,” he said. “If you were hot sticking on a high line, you may stay up there all day and your crew would send lunch up to you. Those were scary days, when ‘old boomers,’ as they were called, told you about how they tested the old 2,400 volt ‘Delta’ line with the back of their gloved hand, and if it didn’t buzz, it meant the spot on the pole was dry and they could go to work on it.”
Leo is the first in his family to do this line of work, although his dad worked on the gas side of the company, retiring in 1987. Looking for work just out of the Navy, Leo was told to ask Local Union 304 about a lineman career, which he did, and several months later, in 1991, he started working as a contractor for Par Electric, joining Westar in 1997 to get away from so much moving around the country.
Jay is a second-generation lineman. Jay’s dad, Jerry, started in 1963 for KG&E in Wichita and retired from the company in 2001. Jay grew up watching his dad fight the elements to restore the power to the communities he loved so much. Jay started his career in 1988 with Local Union 304 and Midwest Energy, joining Westar in 1992 to raise a family and continue his career.
When asked if he’s glad to be lineman today as opposed to the early days, Leo said he would have enjoyed the challenge of doing everything with a hot stick. “There’d be a lot more to the work back then, which would make it very interesting,” he said. “But with today’s bucket trucks, cranes and line trucks, the work is much easier on the body, so I’m glad to have my job today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Standouts in improving safety
Steve and Leo unanimously agreed that three things stand out as the most effective safety improvements in their field:
- Rubber gloves
- Bucket trucks
The subject of training particularly triggered their passion. “Today, you have 7,000 hours of extensive on-the-job training as an apprentice,” they said. “And once you become a journeyman, you have a license to learn, but the learning never stops.”
Elaborating further, Leo said that in practice, rote repetition is the real learning experience. “You’re actually learning from your experience and others’ knowledge and experience, and all of a sudden, you have an apprentice asking you what to do next. That can be scary, as his safety and yours is at stake. It all depends on you knowing how to do your job. If you think you know everything, that’s the day you’ll probably get hurt.”
Steve added that you have to keep learning through your coworkers, through schooling to keep up with all the new technology in tools and procedures, and through day-to-day experience. “It never gets dull, and it’s always a challenge,” he said.
And what might the next 100 years bring to the lineman’s tools of the trade?
Steve said, “I can see a truck having an automated thing you sit in, and it does the work instead of you.” If that vision indeed comes about, safety in 2112 will be something to see.
LEFT: Jay demonstrates fall restriction devices used today to replace the old positioning strap
or “skid,” as it was known, for climbing wood poles. If the lineman starts to fall, this device allows
him to stay positioned, limiting his fall, whereas in the olden days, he would slide down the pole
until hooking in again or hitting the ground.
RIGHT: Jay demonstrates hot stick tools used for training at the William E. Brown
Professional Development Center in North Topeka. At one time, they were the only tools
available for “energized” power line work.
Friday evening, Feb. 17, at Topeka’s Billard Airport, members from Westar’s corporate communications staff has the opportunity to interview four crew members from Utility Risk Management Corp. and Chesapeake Bay Helicopters for an hour. Westar contracted with URMC to fly along about 400 miles of our high-voltage transmission lines late last year. The mission was to gather information about the lines to make sure they are working as designed. The crew returned early this year to conduct additional flights in coordination with work that was completed at the end December.
These flights – some as low as 300 to 350 feet above the ground – help Westar provide safe, reliable service by revealing potential problems before they cause a power outage. Flight crew members work with teams on the ground to gather information about the transmission lines using several methods, including laser measurement and photography. In accordance with North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) requirements, the survey work has been performed in and around Abilene, Junction City, Lawrence, Lenexa, Manhattan, Olathe, Salina, Topeka and Wichita, as well as rural areas.
Crew members not only explained the work they are doing for Westar, but also shared information about their helicopter, “Golf Romeo”; their respective companies; and what life on the road – or in the air – is like.
At Topeka’s Billard Airport. Crews with Chesapeake Bay
Helicopters and URMC chat with Westar representatives.
Lee C., lineman, lives in Virginia and commutes an hour and a half (one way) to his D.C. office when he’s at home with his family. He has worked for Chesapeake Bay three years as a lineman and has been doing work off the helicopter for a year. Prior to joining Chesapeake Bay, he was a contractor lineman for power line work in several states. His travels in the past year as part of the helicopter crew have taken him to California, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada. He usually works with the same crew, which includes three linemen and two pilots who rotate shifts. He said it’s important to work with the same people as often as possible. “We depend on each other for our lives,” he said.
The kind of work Lee does hanging off the helicopter is “full service utility work needing a fast response,” including setting up weather stations and base stations to collect data; long line, hot stick and platform work; transferring on the tower; swapping out insulators and sleeves; completing hardware work such as insulators; and doing repairs on broken strands – even changing out light bulbs. Currently, he serves as the crew’s ground man.
Lee, lineman with Chesapeake Bay,
is currently the crew’s ground man.
Adam F. is a thermal direct analyst for URMC. In this role, he takes the thermal temperature of structures using infrared cameras installed on the helicopter and ensures that accurate data collection techniques are used. He recently graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in civil engineering. He likes working for URMC, which attended a job fair at his university and hired him and about 12 other engineers from his graduating class. A total of about 50 employees work for URMC, Adam said. He still lives in his home state, but in the six months he’s been with URMC, he has mostly traveled to Florida for utility work.
Adam, URMC, is proud of the work
the infrared camera (positioned on the
front of the helicopter) does in taking
accurate measurements of transmission
A resident of North Carolina, Patrick S. is one of Chesapeake Bay’s data collection specialists who conducts inspections on utilities’ power line systems, scans result and sends them to URMC for analysis. “I collect the data Adam analyzes,” he said. He ensures that the computers and cameras on the helicopter run correctly. Before joining Chesapeake Bay a year ago, he was a regional sales manager who sold food to restaurants.
Patrick (left), Chesapeake Bay, highlights Golf
Romeo’s capabilities for Greg R. (Westar).
Last but not least, the Chesapeake Bay pilot is Kristy H., originally from Holland. She has lived in the U.S. the past three years, currently residing in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“As a young girl, I knew I wanted to fly helicopters,” she said. “But the Army rejected me, and I didn’t have the means to get pilot training on my own. Instead, I started my own camera company and eventually sold it, and then I had the money for pilot’s training. My first job was flying over a pipeline for miles and miles, and I like utility work the best.”
When asked what appeals to her about utility work, she said having a mission, a crew, and working with power lines. “It’s important work and a good thing to do, and it [power]keeps everyone going,” she said. “It’s exciting – not like an office job. The helicopter is my office, and it’s different each time I take it up. It’s challenging work because there’s a lot to think about: the weather, the equipment, what’s happening in the airspace like geese flying close by, looking out for towers.” She added that by the end of a six- to seven-hour day, she’s very tired and ready to hole up in a hotel room after working out in the gym.
Greg plays pilot while the real deal,
Kristy, Chesapeake Bay, looks on.
Golf Romeo is a sleek – yet not youthful – bird
Kristy described Golf Romeo as an “old bird” dating from about 1968. “Helicopters can just about last forever because the parts are continually swapped out. It all depends on the number of hours the different parts can fly. You can have a 60- or 70-year old helicopter that runs very smoothly,” she said.
She pointed out that Golf Romeo’s interior probably has racked up about 20,000 hours of flight time and is due for new carpet soon. A maximum of three people can sit inside the helicopter at once because of strict weight and balance limits.
Westar crews were released today to begin their journey back to Kansas. Crews have been gone since October 31.
Every storm restoration presents its own challenges, and this effort was no exception. Crews were challenged by blown tires, hotel arrangements and meal accommodations, to name a few. It’s not easy to make arrangements for 77 people from Kansas to travel to New England and accommodate their stay in less than ideal conditions. A special thank you to crew comfort folks from Westar and from host utility companies for making this happen.
The work that crews perform is rough. In many cases, it’s a matter of completely rebuilding the electrical system, as opposed to fixing a single piece of equipment. Working on an unfamiliar electric system, combined with different safety standards, can present unique challenges . It also presents an opportunity for craft professionals to learn new skills and overcome challenges they may not face day-to-day. They bring that gained knowledge home with them.
Long work hours accompanied by customers who have been without power for an extended period of time can take a toll. Continued focus on safety is imperative. At the end of the day, the thank yous and praise from the host utility company and its customers go a long way to keep crews in good spirits. As a Kansan, it’s reassuring to know that if or when our time comes to go through a similar situation, we have brothers and sisters in the electric utility industry that will be there to help us get the lights back on as safely and quickly as possible.
Thank you to all the Northeast Utility customers who have expressed gratitude to Westar employees. We’re shamelessly proud of the men and women who were given the opportunity to help get your life back to normal.
For a few more photos, visit us on Facebook.
At this time, Western Massachusetts Electric is reporting 64,356 customers without power or 30% of their customer base. This is down from 55%. To put that in perspective for Westar customers, during the December 2007 ice storm about 30% of our customer base was without power at peak. That was the worst storm in recent company history.
Rob’s Group - (2 a.m. 11-3) Arrived in Springfield, Mass at about 7:30 p.m.. Traffic was heavy trying to get here. Personnel are in good spirits. Attended safety orientation. Crews were sent to work on a main line. Crews stopped working at 2 a.m. We’ll turn in for the night and be back at it in the morning.
Heath’s Group - (12 p.m. 11-3) Crews arrived in Springfield, Mass between 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.. Attended safety orientation. They have some rules different from ours, safety personnel did a nice job interpreting the rules. Began work in a town called Longmeadow. Crews will work until 1 or 2 a.m. There is snow on the ground and a tremendous amount of tree damage.
10/31 – 11-3. Travel has been a challenge. Heavy traffic at times has slowed us. Have had two trucks with tire problems. A mechanics truck with a computer programming issue and an issue with a fleet truck. Have encountered crews from AEP Arkansas and PAR crews in Kansas City that are headed the same way. Crews continue to travel safely.
Westar Energy received a call for assistance from Western Massachusetts Electric, a Northeast Utilities company, near Springfield, Mass. The Northeast was hit by a freak snow storm with some areas receiving more than 2 feet of snow. The storm left about 1.8 million customers without power and Westar Energy crews are being dispatched for a two-week deployment to help in the restoration efforts.
Crews are on the way to help Western Massachusetts Electric, a Northeast Utilities company, near Springfield Mass.
Westar has released 67 contract linemen, 25 tree trimming crews and is sending 77 Westar linemen, supervisors, safety and support personnel to assist with restoration efforts.
Westar Energy is a member of the Midwest Mutual Assistance Group. This group allows Westar to call upon neighboring utilities and their contractors for help to restore service in the event of a significant event, such as severe storm. In return, Westar will send line and tree crews to assist neighboring utilities when they are in need. In the event of catastrophic damage utilities reach out for assistance from across the nation.
Photo: Westar crews gather before heading out to assist Alabama Power on 4-28-2011. Because of Kansas City traffic this evening (10-31-2011) crews will meet outside of St. Louis to talk about expectations.
Ten Westar Energy lineman teams and four apprentices competed at the 28th Annual International Lineman’s Rodeo on Saturday, Oct. 15 at the National Agriculture Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs. Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light were the host utilities.
More than 170 three-person lineman teams and 210 apprentices, in addition to hundreds of spectators, crowded the rodeo grounds. Linemen and apprentices from around the country – including teams from Canada, Jamaica, England, Guatemala and Russia – competed in the various events, which test the skills linemen use day-in and day-out. Nearly 726 competitors were scored on agility, speed, work quality and application of safety procedures. In all, 3,000 attendees and participants were estimated to have taken part in the rodeo.
Competitions included the Pole Climb – which tests how fast linemen could climb a pole with an egg in a basket, then descend with the egg in their mouth without breaking the egg – and two Mystery Events. The first Mystery Event included energizing a No. 2 primary, and the second required replacement of dead end bells. There was also the Hurt Man Rescue event, in which linemen must climb a pole and safely rescue a dummy hanging near wiring.
Each year, prior to the competition, a two-day safety and training conference is held to promote work safe practices. The conference again took place at the Overland Park Convention Center.
Receiving top honors from Westar at the rodeo was Westar Team No. 19
Following are the highlights of Westar’s lineman teams’ and apprentices’ performances at the rodeo:
Journeyman Hurtman Rescue:
Team 45 placed 56th out of 172 teams
Journeyman Mystery Event 1 – Energize No. 2 Primary
Team 45 placed 20th out of 172 teams
Journeyman Mystery Event 2 – Replace Dead-End Bells
Team 46 placed 49th out of 172 teams
Journeyman Pole Climb
Team 54 placed 45th out of 172 teams
IOU Division Overall:
Team 46 placed 19th out of 71 teams
Top Journeyman Overall:
Team 46 placed 47th out of 172 teams
Apprentice Mystery Event 1:
51st out of 210 entries
Apprentice Pole Climb:
11th out of 210 entries
Apprentice Written Test:
49th out of 210 entries
IOU Apprentice overall:
17th, 42nd, 49th and 54th out of 84 entries
Top Apprentice Overall:
22nd and 72nd out of 210 entries
“I am always impressed with our linemen at the rodeo,” said Steve Owens, executive director, distribution operations. “They are true professionals, and it is a great opportunity for everyone to see how well they do the difficult job they do every day. And it’s not about speed. As in real life, it’s more important to perform the tasks properly and safely. Our men are most proud about a ‘clean’ effort with no deductions. And they really enjoy learning new techniques from linemen from other companies across the country.”
Besides Westar’s linemen teams and apprentices, 10 judges, four equipment operators and a team of 16 volunteers led by Rodeo Co-Coordinators assisted with various rodeo duties.
Participants’ family members and friends proudly videotaped and photographed their lineman or apprentice competing in the various events in the gorgeous fall weather.
Thanks to all who participated and helped with another successful, safe, fun and entertaining rodeo!
To learn more about the Lineman’s Rodeo, visit http://www.linemansrodeokc.com/
It’s the last day of summer and it is going out in style – nice and mild. But what a change from the painfully hot temperatures we had just weeks ago. While Mother Nature’s oven was roaring outside, air conditioners were humming away inside – working extra hard to keep homes and businesses cool. For some of our customers, the strain on the AC also put a strain on budgets. And even as we start pulling out the sweatshirts and jackets in preparation for fall, some customers continue to struggle to pay their summer electric bills. The Westar Energy Foundation is stepping in to help with a $50,000 donation to Project DESERVE.
Through Project DESERVE, income-eligible households may submit an application to the Red Cross to receive up to $300 of payment assistance toward their electric bill. Project DESERVE is a partnership between Westar Energy and the Red Cross – a partnership that began more than 25 years ago and has provided nearly $9 million in assistance to more than 56,000 Kansans. Project DESERVE is also funded by generous donations from our customers, employees and the Project DESERVE trust fund.
Peggy Ricketts, vice president, customer care, believes this donation is needed now more than ever. Ricketts presented the check this morning to representatives at the American Red Cross Midway-Kansas Chapter in Wichita.
“These are our customers – our friends and our neighbors, the couple at church, the family at school – who will benefit with just a little help in paying their electric bill,” Ricketts said. “Our Foundation’s purpose is to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with this donation.”
More information about Project DESERVE,
Contact the American Red Cross at 316.219.4000.
Westar Energy’s line personnel returned Thursday from their journey to New York. Most customers have had their electricity restored after the devastation brought by Hurricane Irene. Electric utilities have a pact that is unusual, if not unique, that helps us quickly swell our work force in times of need. In this case, Westar was mobilized and in position to begin assisting Central Hudson Gas and Electric as soon as Irene had cleared and it was safe to begin work. The response by utilities along the entire East Coast was impressive. Virtually every available utility crew and line worker east of the Rockies was called upon to help bring power back online after this storm.
In August, Westar called upon mutual assistance partners when strong winds swept through northeast Kansas and left 38,500 customers without electricity. In severe ice storms, we may request crews from a dozen or more states to assist with getting the power back on. In times of widespread damage to an electrical system, electric utilities call upon each other for help rebuilding the system and restoring power. These mutual aid agreements help utilities keep costs reasonable because they allow us to temporarily grow the number of people working on the lines when circumstances call for it.
As our crews headed home, New Yorkers continued to offer their appreciation for the assistance with cleanup following Irene’s havoc on the East Coast. Praise came from customers through social media and from Central Hudson Gas and Electric, the utility our crews assisted. Steve Lant, CEO of Central Hudson had nice things to say about “the guys from Kansas.” He was grateful for Westar linemen’s help. He said they were exemplary in their work, kept in good spirits in tough conditions, and were very kind and polite to Central Hudson customers, many of whom have contacted Lant to talk about the great Kansas linemen.
The following is from Andy Stafford, field safety coordinator. Andy was part of the safety personnel who went along on the trip to New York.
We’ll finish the trip home today from the St. Louis area. What people don’t see is the people behind the scenes, making sure that time sheets are handled, coordinating with the host utility company, compiling daily reports, making sure hotels are booked, and finding restaurants for 70+ people. There are numerous people who make this all come together and receive little to none of the glory or get to experience the different areas we travel.
Working conditions in New York were difficult and the hazards numerous. Every storm has its own characteristics and hazards. I would take this (New York) over the Iowa ice storm last winter with extreme wind chill, 30 mph winds and working nights with snow blowing. The 2008 hurricane in Texas (Ike) was hot and humid; our main hazard was flood waters receding, making the site a sewage area.
The people of New York were some of the nicest and most understanding people I have been around. I can’t begin to count the number of people who drove by waving, honking their horns, yelling “thank you” or “we love you guys” (remember, we were close to Woodstock and there is a lot of love around there). Others stopped to say thanks or brought us snacks. Something all of us will remember for years to come.
So, to everyone who had the opportunity to go, GREAT JOB, and to all those behind the scenes, THANKS for making it possible, we couldn’t do it without your help.