Laying it on the Line

Posted: July 1, 2020, 12:00 am

Wiregrass Electric recognizes linemen’s commitment to job during state celebration

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative journeyman lineman Britt Caldwell gears up to respond to outages in northwestern Florida following an April storm.

Larry Miller knows the level of dedication Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s (WEC)'s linemen possess when they address a power outage during inclement weather.

“We had some straight-line winds, and there were tree limbs everywhere. The power got knocked out,” the eastern Geneva County resident says. “At that time, we were getting 3 1/2 to 4 inches of rain in a couple of hours, but the four linemen never stopped working. They acted like the sun was shining. They were remarkable.”

WEC proudly salutes all its linemen on the first Monday in June, Alabama’s Lineman Appreciation Day. The celebration honors WEC’s close to three dozen lineworkers for their willingness to work at any hour and in adverse conditions.

“We have some of the best-trained and dedicated linemen in the business,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC’s chief operating officer. “They are some of the best I have ever been associated with, and I’ve worked in different locations. All of our crews are able to do any job we may have.”

Storm Ready

WEC apprentice lineman Allen Langford operates equipment at a job site.

April provided WEC linemen plenty of opportunities to show their value, skill, and dedication. During two weeks that included Easter, four separate severe weather systems caused outages across the service area.

One of the storm systems triggered more than 2,600 outages, but WEC’s linemen worked quickly to correct the problems. In fact, they fixed local problems overnight and were able to assist a neighboring cooperative with repairs the very next day.

“I’ve never seen four men work like that before,” Miller says of the example he witnessed. “They all pulled up about the same time. They went a step above and beyond what anyone would expect.”

Dexter Tolbert, foreman for the crew that responded to Miller’s outage, says their efforts were just part of the job.

“We know how valuable electricity is to our members’ daily lives and how difficult it is to operate without it,” he says. “Sure, it was wet, but we always work safely and would have ceased operations if we felt we were in danger. We just want to serve our members well.”

In situations similar to those experienced in April, WEC implements a response plan that restores power as quickly as possible. Initially, a group of six linemen, known as servicemen, respond to outages, especially after the typical workday ends or on weekends and holidays. They are tasked with addressing a litany of the routine reasons for outages.

“They are our first responders,” Kimbro says. “About 80% of the time they can handle whatever is causing the outage.”

Sometimes storms cause larger issues like broken utility poles or fallen trees on power lines. That is when more linemen, typically from construction crews, will respond with heavier equipment to address the problem.

Even though WEC uses a rotation system for after-hours staffing, all linemen know they are potentially on call at all hours if a situation warrants. This requires linemen to possess a strong sense of awareness, vigilance and sacrifice since those situations can interfere with normal daily life.

“They are our weather warriors ,” Kimbro says. “They are very savvy.”

Everyday Excellence

WEC serviceman Jason Grooms responds to an assignment during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Quick repairs also result from day-to-day tasks. Right of way crews trim trees along the 3,000 miles of power lines WEC maintains, limiting the interruptions those can cause during storms. Routine checks of utility poles reveal damaged or weakened ones, which construction crews replace to bolster the grid’s strength.

This is where the teamwork from all 66 of WEC’s employees really shines. Many of the linemen’s daily tasks begin with a work order, which sometimes originates as a new construction request or a member’s repair request.

Member services representatives forward the messages to the operations department. After the operations office processes the information, warehouse employees ensure linemen have the materials ready to immediately tackle the job.

This permits linemen to accomplish more tasks in a given day.

Some of the linemen’s work orders evolve from WEC’s work plan, a document cooperative leaders develop to guide system maintenance and upgrades for four years. Several tasks included are routine maintenance, while others implement new technologies that improve the grid’s resiliency or the linemen’s ability to respond to any issues.

All of the tasks, though, involve an on-site “tailgate” meeting. The crew foreman will detail all of the assignment’s details and safety concerns, ensuring that everyone on the crew understands their roles and the potential dangers that might be involved.

“Our No. 1 priority is we’re here to serve the member. They’re the reason we exist,” Kimbro says. “We accomplish our No. 1 priority by accomplishing our number one goal of working safely.”

Saluting All

WEC crews respond to an outage in April.

Because linemen’s efforts rely on warehouse staff, operations leaders, member services representatives, finance and accounting, and others, WEC chooses to honor all of its employees on the state’s Lineman Appreciation Day.

“We call it Lineman Appreciation Day because that’s what the state calls it, but we appreciate all of our employees,” says Les Moreland, WEC CEO. “For the linemen to do their jobs efficiently, they need the back of the house. We include everybody.”

Celebrations like Lineman Appreciation Day boost morale among WEC employees, as do the words or acts of appreciation members offer from time to time. Linemen notice and appreciate the tributes.

“It can be a challenging job, but it’s rewarding when we see the members smile,” Journeyman Lineman Britt Caldwell says. “Wiregrass Electric has great members and is a great place to work.”

The technological advances also inspire the linemen to perform at their best, Kimbro says.

“We train them, we motivate them, and we treat them well,” he says. “We give them the equipment and resources that they need to do their job efficiently and well. Motivated employees lead to a well-maintained system.

History of Lineman Appreciation Day

WEC crews fix a utility pole
WEC crews fix a utility pole following severe weather in April.

Lineman Appreciation Day celebrations in Alabama and nationwide have existed for less than a decade.

The 113th Congress established National Lineman Appreciation Day with a resolution in 2013. The day is celebrated in April and originated as a way to honor linemen for their efforts to rebuild the power grid following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Congress reauthorizes the celebration each year in separate resolutions.

In 2014 the Alabama Legislature established its own annual Lineman Appreciation Day, which is on the first Monday in June. It is celebrated in perpetuity.

WEC Prepares for Hurricane Season

While tornadoes and straight-line winds posed the biggest challenges in April, hurricanes now emerge as the primary threat as summer sets in.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center expects that 2020 will have a busy tropical season for the Atlantic Ocean basin. It predicts that between 13 and 19 storms will reach tropical storm status, of which six to 10 could become hurricanes. Two systems received their names, Arthur and Bertha, before the season’s official June 1 start.

Employees looking at many screens showing the storm weather.
WEC employees monitor the weather and direct response during an April storm.

The Wiregrass has experienced plenty of tropical storms and hurricanes throughout the years, which is why Wiregrass Electric Cooperative is prepared for any disaster. The preparations begin with the creation of an emergency response plan, a playbook that guides WEC employees on how to respond to widespread outages in various situations.

WEC employees practice the plan throughout the year, and it includes ensuring materials are stocked or easily accessible at local suppliers. The plan also assigns various response roles to all of the employees.

Once the plan is executed, WEC focuses on communicating with its members frequently through the media or its social media pages.

“People can handle the truth. Even if they don't like what they may hear, they can understand and deal with it,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC’s chief operating officer. “If it’s going to take nine hours or nine days to fix the power, we want to communicate that with our members so they can make necessary preparations.”