Times & Transcript
January 26, 2017
The linemen working day and night to restore electricity to New Brunswickers after this week’s ice storm have only two things on their minds: safety, and seeing your lights come back on, a veteran retired NB Power employee says.
“It’s the most awful working conditions,” Steve Hayes says, “but they will say to you that nothing gives them more satisfaction than seeing those lights come on.”
Hayes spent 35 years at NB Power as a Distribution System Operator and later as an Outage Coordinator. Nowadays he’s a union leader and passionate safety advocate for those who perform one of the most dangerous jobs under some of the worst conditions, working at great heights with dangerous electricity in raging storms and, often, with moving traffic right beneath them.
“Safety is paramount,” says Hayes, of Lincoln near Fredericton, “even more so in a storm.”
In an ice storm like that one that blew through New Brunswick this week, linemen must deal with slippery heights to climb, powerful gales, falling ice and tree branches snapping without warning, Hayes says.
Even before a storm hits, NB Power will deploy crews, he says. Weather forecasters will give the utility’s control centre a good idea of where the worst damage will occur, so workers are sent there even before the power fails. Once the ice hits the fan, those crews are deployed, Hayes explained.
The first priority, he says, are life-and-death situations: wires down on occupied vehicles or maybe a fallen live wire threatening to ignite a home. Then the areas with concentrations of vulnerable people will be targeted: seniors’ residences and hospitals. After that, crews are sent to the areas where they will do the greatest amount of good for the largest amount of people, such as neighbourhoods with large concentrations of residents.
Like football players amping up for the Super Bowl, linemen gird themselves for the battle to come, even as the storm nears.
“You get up for it ahead of time,” Hayes says. “You start gearing yourself up.”
For safety reasons, most work is done in daylight hours, but certainly not all of it. Even overnight, special crews are at work and remain available in case of an emergency.
They’ll most often set out before dawn and toil until after dusk. Successive work days are shorter, again for safety reasons.
The workers go through a rigid procedure to ensure the lines are isolated and safe to work on before they can perform their magic, with redundant safety checks built into that procedure.
Linemen have the safety acronym SPARQ imbued into their very psyche: Safety, Professionalism, Accountability, Relationships, Quality. They also take the corporate safety mantra as gospel: “No work is of as much urgency or importance to justify not taking the necessary steps and time to ensure the safety of every member of the working force and the public.”
Members of the public can help too, Hayes says, by not interfering as the linesmen do their work, by staying away from fallen lines or trees, by ensuring generators are properly installed and by following the directions of traffic flaggers as the teams do their jobs.
When lights come back on and crews are filing back into their trucks, feel free to offer a slap on the back and a “thanks,” but don’t feel obligated, Hayes says, because the long hours, dangerous work and atrocious weather is exactly why they signed up for the job.
“They’re a special breed,” Hayes says.
“Those guys will give their heart and soul just to get the power back on for that little old lady down at the bottom of the lane.”