Keeping Us Going…A Lineman’s Day After The Storm

Kristy Tallman

During last weekend’s storm much of Sweet Home was left with the unfortunate circumstance of being powerless, not without strength mind you, powerless without electricity. Much of the town and surrounding area was crippled during the storm as ice coated the lines, trees downed power lines and transformers were pushed to their limits.

For some that is a nightmare, for others it’s “go” time. One such person who knows all about that is David Kem, Operations Manager for Portland General Electric (PGE), who has been a lineman for 42 years. It’s his job to show up when the lights go out no matter what the weather has in store for him.

During a storm such as this one when lines go down Kem says they start at the feeders and work their way downward to the lower bearing lines where not as many people are connected. It takes a great deal of time and work to get the lines repaired.

“We try to get everything from the substation out, make sure that gets on and then we start hitting all of the taps which will be the taps that go to different subdivisions to houses, things like that.” Kem explained.” The main lines out of Sweet Home run all the way down to the Point, down highway 20, and then, they go out to 228 down to Brownsville.”

He further shared the process. “This way we have power where we’re at and then when we get done fixing the line we have power to them. You don’t want to go fix something that does not have power because it doesn’t do any good to put wire up if you can’t even heat it up.”

Kem said it would do no good for them to show up at your home to fix your line if they didn’t start from the substations and work their way outward.

“We would be there, right, and it would really upset you too, because we have a crew there, fix it and then drive off and you still wouldn’t have power for another day. And you’d be like why did that happen? Well,” says Kem, “because everything in the upload wouldn’t be on.”

Kem has been working for PGE for five years now but he’s been a lineman for a total of 42 years. Even with that many years under his belt there’s still things that scare him.

When asked what could possibly scare someone who works on electricity in ice storms, he said, “Tree fall – because we won’t see them and we won’t hear them at night. And they’ll just hit the line where you’re on the pole. I mean it causes devastation. Of course, you know it can rip the arms off and getting hit by people, by the members of the public.”

At the time of the interview Kem had already worked 80 hours of overtime.

For many of the linemen, Kem says they do get amped up when these storms roll through and the work becomes a race to get everyone’s power restored. “You’re not out there doing normal stuff, normal work. Everything’s different and you really have to keep your head on a swivel. You have to really be thinking about what you’re doing, because at any minute something could go wrong. A customer could have a generator on there and not have a bypass switch and kill you.”

Kem stated that this was the lineman’s greatest danger when dealing with storm repair.

“You know if you plug a generator into an outlet and you stick it in there, it goes back into that transformer and turns that 240 volts into 7200 volts. If you’re backfeeding into our system and you don’t have a bypass switch on it like you’re supposed to, you just put 7200 volts into that line and I could have one of my guys working on it right then. We ground for ourselves, we test and ground everything. We have to, just because the lights are out doesn’t mean they won’t come back on all of a sudden.”

Kem says the men have enjoyed the kindness of the people of Sweet Home, they’ve brought them coffee and hot chocolate when they’re working on the lines.

“Just wave and scream at the fellas when you see them,” he says, “they’ve been working really long hours and they’re hanging in there.”

Kem says they get both types of customers, both the kind and the ones who are angry. “It’s just sad that everybody gets upset because the power is off. We didn’t cause it, right? We’re trying to get it back on but that’s mother nature and everything takes time. We’re humans, we have to sleep and eat too, you know.”

The men normally work 30 hours straight with 6 hours to rest then they have to be back to work. He says most are only getting four hours of sleep, including himself. Kem says they do this until everyone’s power is restored. After that they go on 16 to 18 hour rotations.