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A night in the life of a lineman

Linemen Appreciation 2019

Every April we take time to thank our extraordinary linemen who dedicate their lives to keeping the lights on in our local communities.

We depend on our entire staff to keep Trico running smoothly, but on April 8, we honor all linemen who work in demanding situations at all hours of the day and in all types of weather. This month, in honor of National Lineman Appreciation Day, we asked Andrew Keepers, a Trico lineman for 13 years, to write a guest column.

Andrew Keepers mugI wake from a deep sleep to the sound of my cellphone ringing. Groggily, I reach for it, and the word “dispatch” scrolls across the screen. It’s 12:42 a.m.

Fighting back the sleep fog, I answer, “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Kyle in dispatch. We have an outage on Mount Bigelo. KUVE’s transmitter is out.”

I get out of bed and get dressed quickly, putting on flame-resistant pants and shirt – clothing that will protect me from severe burns in the event of a deadly arc flash. I put on and lace up my boots, grab my keys, wallet and iPad, and head out the door to my truck.

I arrive at the office, and head straight to dispatch. Kyle has my outage paperwork ready and gives me a quick run-down on the situation. Only outage call in is KUVE. No other stations have called, which means the problem is more than likely isolated to their service. About this time, my co-worker arrives, and we say our goodbyes to Kyle, and he gives us a “good luck and be safe” as we leave.

We walk out to the yard and get a bucket truck started. We load our tools and personal protective equipment (PPE): hard hat, safety glasses, climbing gear, harnesses, and rubber gloves and sleeves. Knowing that there’s snow on the roads where we are going, we hook the Polaris off-road vehicle to the trailer. We gas up, and do a final tools and material check for anything we could possibly need to make repairs.

The drive through deserted streets of Tucson and up the long winding route of Catalina Highway is uneventful. We roll to a stop on Mount Bigelo Road, just above Catalina Highway. The snow is about 10 inches deep, and frozen puddles of muddy slush cover the dirt road. There’s no way the bucket truck can make it any further up this road. We climb out of the truck into the freezing wind, put on our cold weather gear, and unload the Polaris from the trailer. We grab all our PPE, any gear that may be necessary to troubleshoot (and repair) the problem. With the backseat full of pole climbing gear, extra wire, hotsticks, a handline to raise and lower equipment to the lineman on the pole, and various hand tools, we start up the snow-covered access road to Mount Bigelo.

Ten minutes later, we arrive at the transmitter tower and building. Other than the wind howling up the south slope of Mount Bigelo, there’s no other sound. Not even the drone of the transmitter’s diesel backup generator, which we would normally hear in this situation. For some reason or another, it did not start when power was lost. With no backup generator to replace lost utility power, the TV station is off the air completely.

The problem is obvious, and yet, simple. On the riser pole, there’s a broken jumper wire feeding one of the three high voltage cables to the pad-mount transformer. This transformer steps down the 7,200 volts from the high voltage overhead line, to 120 and 208 volts for the transmitting equipment. With no bucket truck, one of us will have to climb the pole to make repairs.

As my co-worker gets out his climbing gear, I go about the task of making the job site on the pole as safe as possible for him, as he will be up in the “hot zone”. My first step is to pull open the three fuses on the pole above, using a telescoping fiberglass hotstick known to us as an “extendo”. This step will de-energize the large pad-mount transformer. The wind makes maneuvering the extendo very difficult, but with some effort, I manage to pull the fuses.

Next, I open the door on the pad-mount, and test for the presence of voltage on the high voltage cables feeding into it, making sure that they are de-energized. With that critical check made, I use a fiberglass hotstick to unplug the cables from the bushings of the transformer and plug them into temporary connectors that will “ground” the cables to earth. These steps ensure that the cables are completely “dead”. More importantly, they ensure that there is no chance that deadly back-feed current can flow back through the transformer and onto the riser cables from the back-up generator.

As linemen, we are aware of the unforgiving nature of our job. We rely heavily on one another for safety. We constantly watch each other’s backs for hazards every day on the job. One tiny mistake, lapse in attention, false move, or missed safety step and one or both of us could be severely injured, or worse, killed. Tonight, and as always, my main job is to make sure he goes home to his family, and his is to make sure I go home to mine.

With everything made as safe as possible, my partner dons his climbing gear, checks that he has the necessary tools to make repairs, attaches the handline to his belt, puts on his 26,500-volt rubber gloves, and begins his ascent up the dark pole. I stand below, keeping a close eye on everything above, ready to call out at the first sign of trouble or danger, all the while still being aware of my position below and the chance of falling tools and equipment.

He calls down for the hotstick that I used earlier to ground the cables in the transformer. The jumpers at the top of the other two fuses are still connected to the overhead line and are energized, so he will need to disconnect them using the hotstick before he can repair the broken jumper in the third fuse.

With that done, he climbs up a little higher to reach the broken jumper, just over arm’s reach from deadly contact with 7,200-volt lines. On the ground, I already have new wire out and am making a new jumper as quickly as possible for him. It’s getting colder by the minute and time is of the essence.

I send the jumper up to him, and he connects it to the top side of the fuse. When finished with the job, he steps off into the snow and begins to remove his bulky climbing gear. I run the extendo skyward, fighting the wind once more as I close in the cutout fuses one by one. The third goes in with a small flash of blue light, as the pad-mount hums to life and the exterior lights on the transmitter building flash on. Job well done, and the TV station is back on the air.

As we load into the Polaris for our ride down, I take one last look out over the city lights of Tucson far below and reflect on the past 13 years I’ve spent in this trade. The ups and downs, the difficulties and great times, the many missed holidays and birthdays, the struggles and bad days. And I think about how much it has been worth every minute. I think of how much I love what I do, and how I could never see myself doing anything else.

For those of us who recognize the importance of the job they perform, Linemen Appreciation Day is every day.