Co-op lineworkers: Always on

Co-op lineworkers often brave perilous weather conditions to restore power.

Weather forecasters knew it was a potentially devastating storm — a moisture-laden system rolling up from the Gulf of Mexico on a collision course with an arctic blast from the north, with Ohio right in the crosshairs.

Ohioans heard they could have heavy rain or heavy snow, depending on the timing. If they were really unlucky, it might be heavy rain that froze as it fell.

Mike Martin, a lineman at Holmes-Wayne Electric Cooperative in Millersburg, didn’t really concern himself with the forecast that December day in 2004; whatever would come, he and his brother lineworkers would deal with as they always did — and early on, it looked like his co-op would be spared the worst of it.

“It was really just a good soaking rain that first night,” Martin says.

“We were getting a few calls, and it looked like some of our members might be out for as long as a day or two. Then when we woke up the next morning and saw it in the daylight, we knew it was a bad situation.”

The arctic air met the rain on a path that led directly through the Holmes-Wayne service territory, and as many as 15,000 of the co-op’s 17,000 members lost power. In all, a half-million Ohioans were in the dark, including an estimated 100,000 electric cooperative members across the central, southwestern, and northeastern parts of the state.

Even with help from lineworkers sent by less-hard-hit areas, Martin and his crew worked 18 consecutive 16- to 18-hour days, including Christmas and New Year’s, in freezing temperatures, getting power restored.

“I remember being up on a pole turning one house back on,” he says. “It was after dark, and the kids came running out of the house yelling and cheering and thanking us. It actually took us a little bit to realize that it was Christmas Eve. It was a touching moment for us. It makes you feel really proud of the work you do.” Meanwhile, Martin’s own family and extended family put off their Christmas celebration for two full weeks while he was on the job.

That’s the type of courage and dedication electric cooperatives across the country honor on Lineworker Appreciation Day, this year on April 13.

“Electric linemen don’t often get the recognition they deserve,” says Kyle Hoffman, who heads up the lineworker training program for Ohio’s electric cooperatives. “They work all hours of the day, often in hazardous conditions, far from their families. They go above and beyond to restore power to their communities. Our linemen, as well as linemen across the nation, deserve a day of recognition.”

Barry Wisniewski has been on the job for more than 40 years at Guernsey-Muskingum Electric Cooperative, based in New Concord. He says he appreciates the recognition that lineworkers get on Lineworker Appreciation Day, but it’s certainly not the reason they do what they do.

Originally hired as the co-op’s first meter reader, Wisniewski got an early taste of the lineworker mindset when he got a field promotion on his first day on the job. The snow that was falling that day turned into the notorious blizzard of 1978.

“It was all hands on deck, right from the start,” Wisniewski says. “We were clearing paths through snowdrifts that were higher than our trucks to get through and restore power when no one else could go anywhere. That was my introduction to this type of work, so starting that way, nothing else that has come up really seems that unusual.”

The experience made such an impression that Wisniewski decided to go into the profession full time.

“I think to a one of us, our attitude says that we are going to stay out there until the power’s on, no matter what,” he says. “There’s not a bit of quit in them, and there aren’t many linemen who would even consider changing that, no matter what day it is — Christmas, their birthday, a hundred degrees in the summer or 10 below in the winter — that’s just how these guys are.”