A lineman’s life

Barry Wisniewski gives a safety demonstration to a young attendee at Guernsey-Muskingum Electric Cooperative’s annual meeting of members.

Being a lineman is more than a profession; it’s a description of self, according to these men who have more than just their jobs in common — they share a wealth of stories, a knack for troubleshooting, and an often unspoken but consistently unshakeable dedication.

Barry Wisniewski, 66, is the senior-most lineman at Guernsey-Muskingum Electric Cooperative in New Concord. Wisniewski was initially hired in 1978 as that co-op’s first meter reader, but two weeks after his hiring, the blizzard of ’78 hit, causing widespread chaos and power outages, and titles didn’t matter anymore; all hands were on deck, and most didn’t even go home at night.

“I remember fighting our way out when most of the roads weren’t open,” Wisniewski says. “To get around, we’d repeatedly send the 4-wheel drive pickup to punch into snowdrifts, then the winch truck would pull it out. Then we’d try the bucket truck and pull it out when it got stuck. Finally, when it got through, the path was wide enough to get the winch truck through.”

After witnessing the linemen’s scrappy and creative get-it-done mentality, Wisniewski decided to go into the trade himself — which itself is no easy task, then or now.

Today, Ohio’s electric cooperative network sends apprentice linemen to its own Central Ohio Lineworker Training (COLT) facility, a $1 million state-of-the-art center in Mt. Gilead. Since COLT’s inception in 2004, about 370 lineworkers have passed through the four-year program’s strenuous combination of hands-on classroom and field work.

For Jesse Tuente, 34, climbing school was the worst of his training days. He recalls raw, bloody shins, the pounding of his heart, and a good deal of heckling. Tuente, like most linemen, was attracted to the physical, outdoor aspect of the trade — but he was scared of heights.

“Climbing school was the hump for me; I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,'” says the St. Marys-based Midwest Electric lineman, who’s been at the co-op for 10 years. But he did it, and he still relishes both the challenge and rewards that come with the job.

The daily process

A common day’s timeline for most linemen: 6 a.m. wake-up call; meet with the crew around 7 a.m. to receive work orders, prepare equipment, and load trucks; drive as much as 150 miles a day executing assignments ranging from installing new service to setting new poles; stock trucks for potential overnight emergencies; finish up around 4 p.m. Depending on the season and weekly rotation, they might remain on call 24 hours, then start all over the next day.

It’s dangerous, difficult work on the best days, but it’s when inclement weather strikes that things really get tough. Tuente recalls one winter morning around 2 a.m., when he was called from his warm bed because a cold wire had tightened so much that it snapped the pole, and he had to venture out into a -40-degree wind chill. It was so cold, the cabs of the bucket trucks couldn’t even produce heat, and it took every bit of his concentration just to keep his hands steady.

Summer is no better. If you’re not careful, those hours under the blistering sun in heavy, insulated gear can lead to dehydration, nausea, and stenches that can’t easily be aired out of the truck overnight. “Rainstorms are no fun, either, especially when you’re working near 7,200-volt primary power lines,” says Rick Bowers, 45, a 10-year lineman for Firelands Electric Cooperative in New London. “You can actually feel the tingles sometimes when you get too wet and the electricity tracks on your gloves.”

Safety is of paramount concern, especially for family-focused electric cooperatives. Whether battling the clock trying to restore power after an outage or performing a routine procedure for the hundredth time, safety never takes a backseat to timeliness. Ohio crews are proud to have cut their rate of serious work-related injuries during a time when the industry average has increased.

“It’s not like an assembly line. You have to consider so many factors and think ahead about what could happen next — but not too far ahead, or you could get yourself in trouble,” Tuente says. “It makes you a more respectful person to know things can be taken away at any moment.”

More than electricity

Ohio’s mean salary for power-line installers and repairers in May 2016 was $65,090, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but compensation is rarely mentioned when the linemen describe what makes the job worthwhile.

“When the phone rings at 3 a.m., you’re the one someone needs,” says 44-year-old Greg Lemon, a 16-year lineman from Holmes-Wayne Electric Cooperative in Millersburg. “Knowing I have the ability to help people when there’s a car-pole accident or outage is a driving force for me. The day-to-day is practice, but when push comes to shove, it feels like the Super Bowl.”

Nearly all linemen have stories about lives they’ve touched on the job. On one occasion, Wisniewski drove by a shaky man in his 80s attempting to get his lawnmower secured on a trailer. Too frail to be doing such a strenuous job by himself, the man was immensely grateful that Wisniewski stopped mid-job to give him a hand. Wisniewski noticed the man’s U.S. Army cap from Korea, and shook his hand to thank him for his service.

“When I drove away, he was standing next to the trailer at attention with his arm raised,” Wisniewski says. “He was the one saluting me when it should have been the other way around.”

If anyone deserves to be saluted, though, Lemon says it’s the wives and children of linemen. His family tolerates a home full of unfinished projects he has to abandon on weekends when the phone rings, and understands when he has to leave sporting events and family functions early.

“Family is huge,” Lemon says. “My kids always make it a point to give me a hug and say ‘Dad, I love you’ before I leave for work. It means the world to me.”