A day on the job with an ECE line crew

October is Cooperative Month, the focal point of the 2012 International Year of the Cooperative. Globally, these community-focused businesses generate millions of jobs. East Central Energy (ECE) is one of more than 900 electric cooperatives in the United States. Its 57,000 member-owners are served by 162 employees. They all play a role in delivering safe, reliable electricity, whether they work in the office or in the field. This is a snapshot of a day on the job with a line crew.

If there were predictable days in the life of electrical linemen, Jerod Stamper and Bryan Wolbert wouldn’t like their job so well.

“No two days are alike,” said Stamper, a crew foreman in ECE’s Superior, Wis. district. “When we think we’ve got a day all planned out, it changes.”

On a brisk September morning, they were scheduled to install animal protection on pole-mounted transformers in the Wascott area. Squirrels and birds often cause power outages on ECE’s system, and the co-op started installing the devices about two years ago to enhance the reliability of electric service.

“We want to install them across the whole system,” ECE Operations Manager Dave Curtis explained, “but we’re targeting problem areas first. We’ve found that in the areas where they’re installed, blinks have gone away and outages have gone down significantly. We tested a lot of different products to find a standard that works best for ECE. We wanted something that was efficient to install and cost effective for our members.”

Stamper and Wolbert had just gotten on the road when Jerod’s cellphone rang. A member had called the co-op to request a service disconnection at a seasonal property, and they were the closest crew. Along a winding road near the Minong Flowage, Bryan located the member’s transformer, while Jerod went in search of the property owner.

“We like to talk to the members if they’re home and let them know we’re taking care of their request,” he said.

Back in the truck, the men talked about their next job, including the safety procedures they would follow. As a foreman, “making sure everything gets done safely and in good time” is Stamper’s responsibility. “We do a job briefing before we start anything,” he said.

The knowledge that their job is dangerous is always with them, and they take every safety precaution.

“You have to stay focused on what you’re doing,” Bryan explained. “This isn’t a job where you can bring any home troubles to work.”

“Everybody is always looking out for everybody else in this job,” Jerod added.

ECE has 44 linemen working out of its five service centers. They’re responsible for construction and maintenance of the lines and substations that serve the co-op’s 4,300 square-mile territory. Crews start their day with a list of job priorities provided by their supervisor. The projects vary, from plowing in line for a new service, to changing out transformers, installing animal protection, replacing insulators and other line maintenance tasks. Outages and service calls from members may occur at any time, and the shop contacts the crews by cellphone so they can respond.

Stamper and Wolbert are both native Wisconsinites and graduates of the line worker program at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire.  Jerod has 17 years of experience, 14 with ECE, while Bryan has been on the job for eight years, five of them with the co-op.

Jerod’s dad was a lineman; he grew up knowing he would be one too. He smiles as he shares fond memories of stopping at the shop on his way home from school and “hanging out with the crew.”

Bryan chose the profession because he wanted to work outdoors. “I’ve had desk jobs, and the day couldn’t go by fast enough,” he said. “There’s a sense of freedom to this … being trusted to be out here doing our jobs. We have accountability between ourselves. You want to be efficient at your job.”

The makeup of a crew is determined by the type of work to be done. Wolbert usually drives a digger derrick, Stamper a bucket truck. They don’t work together every day.

While much of today’s line work is done from a bucket, Jerod said ECE crews still do “a fair amount” of pole climbing, depending on the terrain they’re working. He demonstrated the climbing technique and installed a new cutout fuse, repaired an arrestor, and added the squirrel protection device while strapped to the pole.

Crews typically eat their lunch in the truck, parked along a country road. “When you work outside, every day the scenery is just a little different,” said Jerod, and as if to prove his point, a deer sauntered onto the dirt road ahead.

Both men are husbands, fathers and avid outdoorsmen. Fall is their favorite season to do whatever job comes their way.

“Fixing an underground fault in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter … I don’t like that,” Jerod said, and Bryan agreed. “It’s always the coldest day of the year, and you’re out there, pounding through frost.”

Their profession has caused them to lose sleep, miss family gatherings and cancel plans with friends, but they can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Getting people’s power back on, especially when they’ve been out for a while … that’s a good feeling,” Jerod said. “We’re usually out in weather that snowplows won’t even go out in. When somebody comes out and pats you on the back and says thank you, it takes some of the pain away from missing birthday parties, Christmas, anniversaries.”