Budding linemen seek to master high-wire act

BGE trainees learn to respect heights, danger of electricity

`Can't think about dying'

April 20, 2001|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

With the hard ground 40 feet below and the crackle of electricity just inches above, danger lurks around every utility pole.

That's one of the first things men like Mike Fitzgerald learn before ever strapping on a safety belt or getting close enough to a pole to climb it. As one of two dozen men in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s line worker training facility, Fitzgerald will also learn that one false move, one bad contact, could mean his life.

He'll also figure out, soon enough, whether he told the truth when he said he wasn't afraid of heights.

"It's high, no question about it," said Fitzgerald, 39, a tall lumberjack-type who fits his nickname, "Butch." "But it's not one of those things you're thinking about when you're up there working. You can't think about dying. If you have too much of that fear factor, you couldn't do the job."

Part of that job is venturing out into bad storms when high winds, lightning and ice bring lines and utility poles crashing down. It means building mazes of transmission lines in new communities and replacing about 4,500 poles a year throughout the utility's 9,400 miles of overhead lines.

After years of cutbacks that sliced training programs from the budget, utilities across the country now are dealing with aging work crews - experienced linemen nearing retirement.

Utilities are also finding themselves battling the telecommunications industry over veteran linemen who can easily cross companies.

To fight back, many companies like BGE are either bringing back or revamping training classes and spending thousands of dollars to build a younger work force. Fitzgerald and the other trainees are BGE's first new linemen hires in eight years.

"New, young people don't tend to head toward this type of business," said media representative Pat McMurphy of Edison Electric Institute, an association of U.S. shareholder-owned electric companies and industry affiliates. "If you had a choice between entering data into a computer in a nice, warm office or go outside in the bitter cold doing something that could kill you, which would you choose?

"There's real competition out there for workers."

Over the last six years, BGE lost about 40 overhead linemen to retirement. When BGE announced last year that it was restarting linemen training, 300 people applied. Washington-based Potomac Electric Power Co., which also has a training program, lost 20 linemen to telecommunications companies in the last two years.

Last year, Pepco aggressively recruited 30 new linemen. Allegheny Power, the utility owned by parent company Allegheny Energy Group Inc., converted an old service station into a linemen training center five years ago to consolidate and strengthen its training efforts.

But hiring isn't difficult just because the job market is tight. Some applicants just can't get past the first, crucial question: Are you afraid of heights?

"Some people will say, `No, I've climbed a ladder, looked out of high windows, been on a roof,'" said Joseph G. Finzel Jr., a BGE senior distribution instructor who has been training linemen for 11 years at the Arlington Training Center in Northwest Baltimore.

"It sounds like a dumb question, but some of the wood poles we climb in downtown Ellicott City are 90 to 100 feet tall. It's not just shimmying up a tree. We need people who will be able to climb as comfortably as walking up the stairs."

It all begins at Arlington, a fenced-in utility pole graveyard. Dozens of 20-foot poles protrude from dirt fields, and 40-foot poles are cemented into the pavement. Spools of wires, backhoes and bucket trucks are scattered between the poles and also warehouses, which are filled with things like washers, testers and 12-inch thru bolts.

On day one, trainees are equipped with safety equipment and tools - goggles, hard hat, rubber sleeves, high voltage gloves, tool belt and boot gaffs.

By day two and three, they start climbing.

Men like Charlie May Jr., whose father was a BGE lineman, and Paul Fullem can now "build" an entire utility pole from scratch - furnishing it with crossarm, wire and breakers - after 10 months of classes.

But before that, they had to prove themselves on the pole.

The task sounds simple enough. Climb 15 feet up a 20-foot pole, circle left, circle right, then come back down several feet and repeat. Next, climb to the top and come back down. Now go all the way up and toss a football back and forth to your teammates.

"Your first instinct is to hug the pole," said May, 33, who left a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant job to follow in his father's footsteps. "I know my heart was beating, and the adrenaline was rushing. But two things you have to learn first and that is: Respect the electricity and trust the belt."

It's also good to be a little cocky, the guys say. There's no room here for people who scare easily. Those who don't learn how to overcome a 20-foot climb within the first seven weeks wind up packing up their gear for good.

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