dedicated to discovering all that is authentically amarillo
current issuecurrent issue
Cover Story - Posted May 26, 2017 noon
photo
Photo by Shannon Richardson

Life on the Line

An inside look at one of the city's most challenging professions

more resources
photo
photo
Share This: Bookmark and Share

Most homeowners with any degree of do-it-yourself spirit have worked around electricity. They’ve connected wires, replaced a light switch, or installed a ceiling fan. It’s not particularly difficult, but it requires attention to detail and a healthy respect for electricity. Maybe you’re on a ladder. Maybe you’re juggling tools. Regardless of the circumstances, you have to pay attention. Even a small amount of electricity – like the 110 volts of an electrical outlet – can be risky.

Now imagine doing similar work while strapped to the top of a wooden utility pole. You’re 45 feet in the air. It’s dark outside. You’re in blizzard conditions, as high winds pelt you with snow and sleet. Instead of a 10-pound ceiling fan, you’re attaching an 800-pound transformer. And the current running through those electrical wires may be in the tens of thousands of volts. It’ll kill you.

The stakes are higher, too. You’re not just hoping a light will come on when you flip the switch. You’re tasked with bringing electrical power back to an area’s homes, hospitals, businesses and schools.

An electric utility lineman isn’t just one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States, it’s also one of the most technical. “Our linemen possess a unique set of skills that combine athleticism, critical thinking, communication, and even a little bit of psychology,” says David Hudson, president of Xcel Energy – New Mexico, Texas. “They also are highly trained. To reach the level of journeyman, our linemen go through a four-year apprenticeship training and continue their education throughout their career.”

That training prepares these hard-working professionals to do whatever it takes to restore power when the city’s lights go out.

High-Tech on the High Plains
“During certain times, linemen become the most important people in the world,” says Wes Reeves. Based in Amarillo, he’s the media relations representative for the Texas and New Mexico region of Xcel Energy, one of the largest utility companies in the United States. He’s not a lineman, but he speaks on their behalf all the time. “I really believe they like to help people. I think there’s something inside of them that feels, ‘I can do something with my hands and it helps somebody.’”

Of course, there’s much more to being a lineman than “doing something” with their hands. It’s a physically demanding job. It’s a mentally taxing job. It can be a high-pressure job that is sometimes performed in the worst of environmental conditions – during an ice storm, or in a smoking field following a grass fire.

That’s why safety is the absolute primary focus of every single one of Xcel’s nearly 300 line personnel serving a 50,000-square-mile local territory. “We have to stay safe no matter what we’re doing,” says Mark Palacio, who spent 12 years as a lineman before completing his master’s degree and becoming one of Xcel’s training instructors. Now the supervisor of technical training, Palacio operates out of Xcel’s Technical Training Center on I-40, east of The Big Texan Steak Ranch. A small complex of non-descript white buildings hides a technical wonderland, complete with heavy equipment simulators, a high-voltage hands-on training lab, a substation lab, and a pole-climbing yard. Here, apprentice linemen don’t just learn to scramble up utility poles, but to actually install and equip them from the ground up. In short, they learn to keep the lights on without compromising safety in any way.

The nearly 8,000-square-foot training facility is the heart of Xcel’s Electrical Line Apprentice Program. Entry-level linemen can enter the program as a first-year apprentice. After an immersive multi-week introduction to the work, they refine their on-the-job skills while attending classes over the next four years (see sidebar). Only after a four-year apprenticeship do they attain the title of journeyman lineman, which allows them to work without supervision. Along with foremen, the Texas-New Mexico segment of Xcel has around 200 journeymen and 60 line apprentices. Most in-town crews consist of a journeyman working alongside an apprentice or two.

The Xcel training facility is just a few years old. In fact, Xcel Energy itself is also relatively new – at least in its current form. The company was created in 2000 following the mergers of the Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Company with the Public Service Company of Colorado and the Amarillo-based Southwestern Public Service (SPS). But under one name or another, SPS has been providing steam-, coal-, and now wind-generated power to Amarillo residents since 1925 (see timeline).

Transmission and Distribution
To power a home’s computers, lights and toasters, electricity must travel through two types of lines. Transmission lines are the big ones. Held aloft on steel structures that may be up to 120 feet high, these high-voltage lines carry electricity directly from a generating station to city substations and other industrial operations. Linemen refer to the power lines as “beer can wire,” which offers an idea of the thick diameter. Primarily existing along rural stretches of highway, these lines and structures are installed by traveling crews of linemen using heavy equipment.

The second type is a distribution line. These carry lower-voltage power from the substation to a local home or office, atop the 40- to 45-foot wooden poles that parallel Amarillo’s alleyways and city streets. “Linemen are trained on both sides,” says Palacio. “You’re either out on transmission or you’re in distribution. New construction, maintenance, troubleshooting, and outages usually belong to the distribution side.”

Palacio spent six years as a transmission lineman and six as a distribution lineman. He says the transmission jobs, which usually involve weeks of travel and much more intense manual labor, typically go to the younger and less experienced linemen. “You’re more scheduled on transmission than on distribution, unless a huge tornado comes through and knocks down a bunch of lines.” Because the structures are so big, they require large installation equipment and, in most cases, the lines aren’t “hot.” Typically, the power doesn’t turn on until a transmission line is installed or repaired.

Not so with distribution lines in and around the city. Distribution work falls to the veteran journeymen for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps them closer to home. “It tends to be more desirable because when people want to start families and have more of a so-called normal life, it’s easier to be a distribution lineman,” says Reeves. “You’re traveling less.” Within the city environment, the work becomes less labor-intensive but far more technical, because in many cases distribution lines may still be conducting electricity. And while a lineman may not be on the road for weeks at a time, he’s still on-call, hour after hour.

“Nights and Sundays – it seems that’s where you get most of your callouts,” Palacio explains. “Whenever you have something planned at home, you’re going to get a callout. Kids’ birthdays, funerals … that’s the toughest part of that particular job.”

The second reason veteran linemen typically get the distribution jobs is because the presence of energized wires – despite being a lower voltage – means the potential hazards are greater. “Out there, it’s a lot of labor. In town, you have to be really careful what you’re doing,” Palacio says.

Long Hours and Extreme Caution
“Before I took this job, I spent three consecutive Thanksgivings and two Christmases working,” says Tanner Dunlap, a former journeyman lineman, who is now a technical instructor for Xcel. Before joining the company, he worked for an unrelated electrical cooperative in southeast New Mexico. “I spent seven-and-a-half years there. We were constantly being called out. My last five to six months I turned in 770 hours of overtime.”

Dunlap says a tornado event in 2007 required him and his crew to work 32 hours straight, followed by an eight-hour sleep break, and then another 20 hours in the field. That wouldn’t happen at Xcel. Even the most experienced linemen know attention to detail starts to diminish after hours of grueling work. When focus drifts, safety declines.

Even in times of inclement weather or other disasters, Xcel doesn’t keep its linemen on the job for days at a time. “The main rule of thumb is that, at 16 hours, they’ll find a way to shut you down and send you home to sleep,” Palacio says. “In small regions there are instances where they may be asked to work a little bit longer, but at any time the employee can say, ‘I’ve had it. I’ve got to go.’ There’s never an issue sending an individual home when they’ve had enough.”

Despite being on-call, linemen typically get to choose whether or not to work during non-emergency situations. “If we find poles or wire down, they call a crew and we have an overtime list,” Dunlap explains. “Whoever is highest on the overtime list will get the last call. The lowest overtime gets the first call. He doesn’t have to take it, so they just work their way down the list until somebody accepts the call and heads out.”

Sometimes it’s those non-emergency situations that can present the most hazards. “Oddly enough, we have fewer accidents when it’s a big storm than we do in our everyday work,” says Palacio. In hazardous conditions or the wake of a weather event, the adrenaline rush can improve concentration. But on a normal day in bright Amarillo sunshine, it’s easier to take safety for granted. “You do the same thing for three days in a row, by the third day you might get complacent.”

That’s why Reeves says the safety focus at Xcel involves more than just limiting a lineman’s hours. At the core, it’s about hiring and training the best personnel available. At the New Mexico co-op, Dunlap only made time-and-a-half for his 770 hours of overtime. Xcel employees in the field may earn double time, double time-and-a-half, and even triple time on the rare opportunities they work beyond 16 hours straight. Offering competitive pay to journeymen and apprentice linemen ensures an attentive team built from the best of the best.

“The focus on safety is almost like a religion here,” says Reeves. “Every meeting we have starts with safety. At every directors’ meeting, the first report you have is do you have any injuries? Even the most minor things get reported.” He says Xcel realizes, as the area’s sole source of power, it doesn’t have any competition. “If we’re going to be your sole provider, we’re going to do a world-class job of it.”

In other words, a company like Xcel can’t take care of its customers if it doesn’t also take care of its employees. “We hire the best, and we provide the best training, because the work of a lineman is one of the most important jobs in our society when you consider how dependent we are on electricity in our homes and businesses,” says Hudson, the regional president. “They’re the ones spending long days in awful weather to ensure our comfort and safety. But in spite of the hardships, it is a fantastic career.”

Harsh Working Conditions
Those hardships can definitely take their toll on linemen, especially in a place where residents are more likely to describe “awful weather” as plain-old, normal Texas Panhandle weather. This year has already brought its share of trials. Only halfway into 2017, Xcel’s linemen have already endured a huge January ice storm, a tree-snapping snowfall in late April, and a devastating series of local wildfires. Ice may be more destructive to the overall system, but fires – or the smoke-filled aftermath of fires – are among the most difficult conditions linemen face.

“That’s the worst environment to work in,” says Palacio. “We go in after everything is burned up and it’s just solid black haze. The wind picks up all the ash. You have to use a respirator and you’re just covered in black soot. Every time I hear there’s a big fire and we’ve got structures down, I think of those guys out there.”

Palacio and Dunlap have worked in temperatures far below freezing, have rebuilt lines after tornadoes, and have battled snow and sleet. But Dunlap says an otherwise calm, uneventful summer day isn’t always a walk in the park, either. “[Linemen] have to wear fire-retardant clothing, so in the middle of August you’re in long sleeves,” he says. Journeymen and apprentices might find themselves working hard while wearing thick, rubber-lined gloves in triple-digit heat. “That can be uncomfortable, too.”

But it’s not always a chore. Regardless of the weather, a lineman spends his days outside. On a daily basis, he completes important, physical tasks. That’s enough of a draw for individuals who aren’t interested in desk work, says Lisa Thomas, Xcel’s apprentice coordinator. “People who find it gratifying to do things with their hands” tend to be ideal candidates for the company’s lineman apprentice program. “At the end of the day, they can say they’ve built or repaired something and they take pride in that,” says Thomas.

“That’s huge,” Dunlap adds. Especially since linemen are doing a job few others can do.

Military Precision
The specialized work and commitment to its personnel means an almost military-style commitment to logistics during storm events. Xcel has its own Denver-based staff meteorologists who are constantly monitoring forecasts in its service area. It keeps tabs on supply lines while a dispatch center in Lubbock fields calls. When big storms are on their way, materials and personnel go on the move.

“If we have a snow event, we watch the weather models,” says Reeves. “If we see that the core of a storm is going to hit Perryton, then a day ahead we move people out there. We move supplies there, too. We work with our vendors. We’ll have these calls and say we have to get X amount of poles, and X amount of conductor into the Perryton service center. It becomes very much like a military operation.”

As the media representative who will be contacted by television news crews to discuss power outages, Reeves joins those planning calls before the event, along with the coordination calls once a storm hits. “A lot of the conversations are about guys who have been working 16 hours, and whether we have the ability to bring other people in. We’ll try to pull people off [non-essential] jobs and move them in. The customer who is out of power wants to see that we’re working all night.”

At the same time, Xcel doesn’t want to compromise the well-being of any lineman. “We have to stay safe no matter what we’re doing,” says Palacio. “We want to hurry up and get their lights back on, but we’re not going to hurry so much that we make anything unsafe for us or our employees.” He explains that the work of restoring power doesn’t always mean sending a lineman up a pole to reattach a line or replace a transformer. Sometimes it’s two men on the ground planning a strategy. “They may not be doing a whole lot from your vantage point, but they’re actually having to think about what they’re fixing to do. They’re job planning or safety briefing. It’s highly involved work and they have to follow the correct process.”

Lisa Thomas compares line repair to a chess match. “It’s very technical and risky,” she says. “You know what you want to happen and what the moves are but you have to have it planned out ahead of time.”

And like many public organizations, the power company works to impact the most people first. During large-scale outages, Palacio says Xcel’s dispatch system will prioritize restoring power to 100 people ahead of restoring power to one or two people. The unique arrangement of the power grid sometimes leads to public confusion. “You may be a mile from the one or two [people] and they may be asking ‘Why aren’t you coming to fix my lights? You’re just down the street!’ Rather than our crew spending five hours getting power on for two people, they’re going to [work on] the largest outage and make the biggest impact they can.”

Public Gratitude
Despite occasional misunderstandings, Xcel’s linemen and instructors say the people of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle are quick to show appreciation. Locals are grateful for law enforcement and medical personnel during times of crisis, and they often show the same response to linemen – who comprise a kind of technical first response team. “We saw that in the ice storm we had in Perryton,” Reeves says, referring to the weather event in January 2017 that left thousands without power around the cities of Pampa, Borger and Perryton. “The town brought food – a dessert bar with homemade brownies – one night. We had upwards of a thousand linemen personnel there at the [Ochiltree County] Expo Center in Perryton. They weren’t all our people. A lot of those guys were from out of town, and they said they’ve never been treated like that.”

Likewise, Xcel has sent its own linemen to assist with other natural disasters far outside its service area, like when a team of local journeymen headed to Long Island, New York, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Traditionally, New Yorkers haven’t always been happy with their local utility companies, but they adored the Xcel team. “We had these slow-talking cowboys from Texas and New Mexico show up,” Reeves says. “So these people loved the cowboys.”

By that time, residents of the outer boroughs were annoyed that local utility companies were taking so long to restore power. He heard from a writer at NYU whose mother was on life-support and had been without power for three days. An Xcel employee arrived and said, “We’ll take care of it.” He had the power back on within 10 minutes. “It just so happens that the fix was easy, but nobody had bothered to stop by their house,” Reeves says. “Our guys enjoyed that.”

A Changing Industry
Palacio and Dunlap have both seen enormous changes in the industry since they transitioned from journeyman linemen to instructors. The standard H-shaped wooden utility pole may remain the same across the decades, but the technology continues to improve. Distribution linemen carry tablet computers to let dispatch know as soon as an outage is cleared. Automated computer systems monitoring the grid can sometimes clear outages and restore power by redirecting the flow of electricity. A lineman shows up to address the issue, but electrical service has already been restored.

“In the older days, we would go fix a problem,” says Palacio. “Now we can switch it around, get everybody back on, isolate the problem, and then go fix it.” For instance, a couple of decades ago, a fallen tree branch could take down a line and leave a thousand people without power. An employee would have to go to the site, determine what happened, and communicate back to dispatch. Customers may have been without power until a team could then repair the utility pole and its connections.

Today, Xcel’s computer systems can typically reroute electricity within 30 minutes or an hour – the same amount of time once required for a search man to figure out what happened. Power gets restored quickly to thousands, and only five customers may have to wait for the actual repair to return their electricity.

As a result, a lineman during the 1980s may have spent most of his days 40 feet in the air. Today, that’s not the case. In the city, new construction of distribution lines tends toward more durable steel poles rather than the older wooden ones. Even in older neighborhoods, bucket trucks can easily access the tops of the wooden poles. “If you’re in distribution, you could climb every day or you might not climb for two or three months,” says Dunlap. “It depends on the area.”

Even so, a lineman always has to maintain climbing skills, just in case. Learning to climb safely is a huge part of the apprentice program and remains a priority throughout a lineman’s career. It’s been essential to the job for a century.

A lineman’s climbing equipment may not have changed much over the years (see sidebar), but that’s not the case with other tools. “Just in this department, we’ve introduced five brand-new tools that our guys didn’t know existed. We’re finding new tools all the time,” Dunlap says. That’s why even journeyman linemen still must take regular refresher courses, to ensure they stay up-to-date on new technologies – and how to use them.

“The big push right now is productivity through technology,” says Reeves. “What kind of tools can we use to get the job done either faster, safer or cheaper? We want to be an early adopter of technology where it makes sense.”

The technology and systems may improve from year to year, but the personality of Amarillo’s utility line workers hasn’t changed in decades. They enjoy being outside. They don’t mind a little wind or snow. They like helping people. They aren’t afraid to work holidays or odd hours.

And they are always, always committed to safety. “The ultimate goal is safety. Every class that Tanner and Mark do, safety is always No. 1,” says Reeves from inside the state-of-the-art training facility. “If you can’t do it safe, then you don’t do it.”


A Different Kind of “College” – The Path to Journeyman

After four years on the job in Xcel Energy’s Electrical Line Apprentice program, an apprentice can become a certified journeyman lineman. While some utility companies require their linemen to pay for their own education, Xcel offers the hands-on training as part of its U.S. Department of Labor-registered program. Entry-level apprentices learn the basics during a probationary period, then go to work alongside a more experienced crew. With each year of education, they are released to perform additional tasks. “You can do a little bit more all the time, as you learn, until you’re a journeyman,” says training supervisor Mark Palacio.

Minimum requirements include a high school diploma or GED, plus the ability to pass a few physical and mental aptitude exams. Entry-level, first-year apprentices start at a base of around $26 an hour, plus a competitive benefit package, paid holidays and vacation, and the potential for plenty of overtime pay. “Apprentices get a pay increase every time they advance,” says apprentice coordinator Lisa Thomas. These pay raises culminate with the journeyman certification. “In four years, they can go from $26 to $40 an hour.” After that, wages increase a percentage every year.

Wes Reeves says the journeyman program is an excellent option for hard-working high school graduates who may not be interested in earning a traditional college degree. “A lot of kids aren’t ready for college. When we talk to high school kids, we tell them this is another higher education option,” he says. “We are [like] a college in so many ways.”

The only difference is that Xcel’s lineman “students” work full-time and get paid while earning their four-year certification. And because Xcel pays for the training, “you’ll graduate without a student loan,” says Thomas.

Xcel also offers a college reimbursement program that covers 80 percent of an employee’s tuition if they do choose to earn a traditional degree while with the company. That’s how lineman-turned-supervisor Palacio completed his college degrees. “While I was a lineman, I was going to school at night and got all the way through to a master’s degree,” he says. He knew he wanted to get into management someday. “Xcel helped pay for that.”


by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
blog comments powered by Disqus
recent stories

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
Feast your eyes on Dickey’s three meat platter, a meal made to share – but ...

Sizing up the Sides
Fries may be the typical burger sidecar, but why be typical?

Don’t Forget the Fries
Since burgers are rarely eaten without a side of fries, this issue wouldn’t be complete ...

Working Their Buns Off
A number of local restaurants rely on buns baked every morning in Amarillo at Snowhite ...

@AmarilloMag