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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

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Perilous Work, Unpredictable Days a Way of Life for Linemen

By Mark Solof

Up in the middle of the night to climb poles in the wind, rain and cold. Traveling great distances to spend long days in the midst of disaster areas, sometimes sleeping on a cot in a tent. Handling potentially deadly high-voltage electric lines and components.

Austin W. Brewin

Being an electric lineman takes a special breed. The pay is good—the starting pay of a trained lineman working for the Tennessee Valley Authority is $63,000 per year—but the work can be grueling, dangerous and take a toll on family life.

Still, many are drawn to the work. “The money makes it worthwhile,” said William Tuohy, a lineman based in Connecticut. “But most guys that do it are into what they do. We look at it like a fireman going to a fire. When the need is there, we go.”

Nationwide, about 60,000 linemen are employed in the electric utility industry. A similar number are employed by telecommunications companies. Only 2 percent of linemen are women. It takes three to four years of classroom and outside training as an apprentice to become a “journeyman” lineman who is certified to work independently.

Many linemen work for unionized utilities or contractors. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also runs a hiring hall for unemployed members who are offered assignments around the country as needs arise.
Disaster response is an expected part of the job. Touhy recalled traveling from Connecticut to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: “That’s a long drive in a bucket truck—yes it is.”

Albert Parmer, an Ohio apprentice lineman who traveled to help restore power after Superstorm Sandy, worked with specialized equipment. First, in Pennsylvania, he helped operate a “digger truck” to erect new poles. “ There’s nothing good in Pennsylvania about digging a hole,” Parmer said. “God made that rock about four feet down and you’re not digging a hole through it. We had to use rock augers and everything.”

Next, in New Jersey, his crew operated a “backyard machine,” a smaller variation of a bucket truck with tank-like tracks that can negotiate their way through tight off-the-road locations to restore lines.

For the most part, the work gets little recognition. “Nobody even knows we do [this work] unless they’re in one of those stricken areas,” Tuohy said.

Mark Solof is director, public affairs and communication, at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

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