Shedding light after disaster is all in a day's work for linemen
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Jan 28, 2013, 11:05
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Lee Chappell, manager of operations for PGEC, and lineman Justin Ellis, at PGEC offices in Waverly.
When the power goes out, line personnel are the ones who get the call and answer it, heading out at all hours of the day and night, and in all kinds of weather, to turn the lights back on.
“It’s not a job that you can do every day of the week for a paycheck,” explained Lane Chambers, a lineman with Prince George Electric Cooperative. “You’ve got to love, at two o’clock in the morning, when it’s 18 degrees and you get that call to go out and restore somebody’s power, you can’t do that for the sake of having a job. You’ve got to do it because you love the job.”
When Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast on Oct. 28, 2012, it left more than 8 million people in the dark. With Virginia left relatively unscathed, investor-owned utilities in the north asked for assistance from the state’s electric cooperatives.
Chambers and seven other linemen from Prince George Electric Co-op packed up their bags, went to cast early votes, unsure if they would be home by election day and started for New Jersey.
After spending a night sleeping in their trucks before accommodations for out of state assistance were established, the crew arrived at a state fair grounds in Sussex County, N.J., which had been transformed into a camp for 900 linemen.
Despite having to sleep in trailers outfitted with rows of bunk beds and braving showers that were freezing cold one night and scalding hot the next, linemen love the times they are called to respond to storms away from home.
“I live for it,” said Justin Ellis, another Prince George Electric Cooperative linemen who went to N. J.
On Monday, the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives will present their “Unsung Virginian” awards to Chambers, Ellis and 178 other Virginia line workers who responded to the need in the north. But for them, they’ve already received the best award.
“For me, it’s not just the fun,” said Chambers. “Especially in New Jersey, those folks were so grateful. They were very appreciative of what we were doing.”
He said people would bring them pizzas during their lunch breaks and stop by to thank them. Lee Chappell, operations manager for Prince George Electric Cooperative, said that the company has been receiving individual thank you emails and letters from residents they helped. While appreciation is common, having residents actually take the time to look up the co-op just to send an acknowledgment is unusual.
“One little girl, we worked on a street all day, and she stood out there the majority of the day holding a little sign up that said, ‘thank you,” Ellis remembered. “That makes you feel good. That gives you a little more energy for the day to keep yourself going.”
At the end of the 16 hour shifts they work while responding to severe weather events, there’s a reward the linemen enjoy.
“That’s the best part, in my opinion, of doing line work – when the power’s out, getting to see the lights come back on,” Chambers said. “You’ve worked hard all day, and you get to turn the lights on.”
When linemen travel outside of their home region to assist with power restoration, they face challenges that aren’t there at home. They have to coordinate closely with representatives from the company that manages the lines and knows the terrain.
“They’re our eyes and ears,” Ellis said, explaining the role of the representative, who they refer to as “the bird dog.”
“He’d find the stuff, point it out to us and we’d get to work.”
In the area of N.J. where the PGEC crew were working, damage to houses and vehicles was less extensive than it was along the coast. But, the damage to power lines was widespread. The crew spent 10 days working in an area of no more than five square miles. It took them over two days to fix the lines along a stretch of road less than a quarter mile long.
“Everything was on the ground,” Ellis said. “We had to rebuild the whole line.”
In the rockier soil of the hills of Northern N.J., that sometimes meant boring holes through massive rocks to install new poles where the old ones had broken.
While many without power feel a flutter of hope at the site of bucket trucks adorned with power company logos, the technical aspects of the job sometimes make it necessary linemen to pass by broken poles.
“On a storm like that, you’re basically trying to get you’re numbers up,” Ellis explained. “If you go by a broken pole or something and it’s only two accounts off of it, and then you’ve got a neighborhood with 500 homes in it, of course they want to get that back up.”
One confused resident across the street from the fair grounds where hundreds of power company employees and their equipment were staying posted a sign in the yard that said “no power.”
In the world of power restoration, everything has to be done by the books and according to procedure, so no one gets hurt.
“Everything is done in steps,” Ellis said. “You can’t just stop off and fix this on the way, because you don’t know who’s on the other end of it. And that’s why they send a bird dog. You hate to do that, but I want to go home and see my family, so does he,” Ellis said, gesturing to Chambers, who explained the potentially dire consequences if procedure isn’t followed.
“If someone were to energize a line that we were working on, we could be killed instantly,” he said.
Chambers joined Prince George Electric Cooperative after serving four years in the Marine Corps and has been working there for the past 11 years. He assisted in the clean up after Hurricane Katrina and numerous other storms.
Ellis, who has been with Prince George Electric Company for just shy of eight years, has also been as far as Kentucky and N.J. to help with post-storm restoration. He said a friend talked him into applying for the job.
“I wish I had done it when I was 18,” he said. “...This job, you either love it or you hate it. It’s not made for every person.”
The award ceremony will be held in Richmond at noon on Monday.