Restoring the light

Mar. 20, 2014 @ 12:32 PM

Older residents sometimes refer to electricity as “the current” and when it is off, “the current is off.” Recently, the electricity (or current or lights or power) was off in northern Orange County and surrounding areas because of ice.
Throughout the normally quiet rural landscape, the sound of exploding transformers and snapping trees, echoed. Immediately, almost as a survivor instinct, people began phoning the power company to say they had lost power, or electricity, or current (if you are old enough to know).
The power lines overhead are served by Duke Energy and if you are in the rural areas of Orange County, by Piedmont Electric. We don’t think about overhead power lines until they are on the ground or we are powerless. We don’t think about the workers that face life and death technicalities in working with electricity who provide and when necessary, restore, power.
“I got called at 2:30 that Friday morning … my power was out and I left my family to go to work,” said Brian Rhew of Piedmont Electric, who works as a lineman crew foreman.
“I went to Piedmont and was assigned an area in Orange Grove,” Rhew said. “People don’t understand, but we start from a substation and work from there, down the line; there are many safety factors to consider and we basically clear or repair as we go,” says Rhew. The nature of a lineman’s work is dangerous, and the complication of ice from nature multiplied the risk Rhew and the hundreds other workers would face over the coming days. “We did everything from remove limbs leaning on the line, to cutting trees off a line, to replacing a broken pole, to replacing broken lines; at one point we would cut a tree and four or five more would fall nearby, that first day was pretty much a losing battle,” Rhew recalls.
The crews were limited to 16 hours and they were assisted by Pike Electric and contractors and tree crews from around the state.
“There were so many challenges and on a dry day working around electricity is not for everybody; I love my job in that I do something most people don’t want to do and during these times it makes my role that much more important,” Rhew said. “Replacing poles and lines takes so much time; we would spend about four to five hours on a broken pole and that involves pulling the broken pole from the ground, setting a new pole and hanging lines, and that is all if we can get the trucks to the pole without getting stuck or being obstructed,” Rhew said.
According to Rhew, his crew alone replaced 18 poles in three-days of work. “Most people are grateful, they understand our jobs and respect the time it takes to restore electricity. There are some people however, that just don’t understand and they think because the lines above their house is intact, the power should be on,” Rhew said.
Throughout the course of a year, safety and training classes are mandatory for those who risk their lives to restore or maintain electricity. And while this is the nature of their chosen profession, there is a degree of admiration and respect, these men and women deserve.
“We leave our families and our homes when the power is out to go restore power to a customer and that is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. My family understands the role and the risks and my fellow co-workers are professional even when we are clearing trees while others are falling all around us,” Rhew says with a tone of personal satisfaction. It might be cliché to express one doesn’t appreciate the loss of electricity until electricity is lost. Yet, it might be more meaningful, should your path ever cross with a member of a utility crew, to acknowledge their efforts and offer gratitude for the nature of their work, which is sometimes made is harder by the effects of nature.
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