It’s not a job for the faint of heart.
For national lineman appreciation day on Wednesday, we visited PSEG Long Island’s training facility in Hicksville and spoke to some of the instructors about what it’s like on the job.
From scaling 75-foot poles to handling dangerous high voltage wires, here’s some of what goes into keeping the power on.
About 75 percent of recruits drop out after the first week of training
That’s mostly because of a fear of heights, said lineman instructor Joe Gaffney.
In their first three weeks at the academy, recruits learn how to climb utility poles, practicing on a stand of 35-foot-poles near the classrooms. Linemen strap spikes under their shoes and secure a belt around the pole that keeps them from falling to the ground were they to slip.
“You have maybe a quarter inch of steel that’s underneath you, and you’re 50 feet in the air,” said instructor Wayne Stelter. “It can be pretty scary. It’s really mentally taxing.”
After the first six months of training, recruits are required to scale a 75-foot-pole and ring a bell.
Training takes four years
On average, when PSEG LI puts out a call for trainees, about 85 applicants are chosen to take the written and climbing tests, after which most people drop out, according to utility spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler. Those who remain go through four years of training out in the field and at the Hicksville facility.
A faulty glove could be a fatal problem
The other common reason why people drop out of the academy is the risk of dealing with high voltage wires, Gaffney said.
“Any time you have a contact with that, it’s usually fatal,” Stelter said.
Linemen wear thick rubber gloves that are tested every three months for tears or holes as well as rubber sleeves that cover the length of their arms when dealing with high voltage lines.
During a demonstration at the training center, another instructor, George Ritter, showed the danger of faulty gloves. He hooked a hot dog to the end of a live wire and ran it against a portion of a rubber glove where the insulation had worn down. The hot dog, a stand in for a finger Gaffney said, instantly burst into flames.
Winter can be rough on a lineman ...
This March was particularly bad for Long Island’s linemen, with three Nor’easters blowing through one after the other. High winds toppled trees and poles and the heavy snow weighed down branches, which sagged on utility lines, Stelter said.
“We barely had time to get the system repaired properly when another storm would hit,” Stelter said.
During storms all linemen work 16-hour shifts, Flagler said. Reinforcements were also brought in from Quebec, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan to help with repairs this March.
PSEG LI also dispatches linemen and other staff, including to Puerto Rico last December after Hurricane Maria struck the island.
... but summer can be, too
Outages are common during the summer months too. “People will put in extra AC units and add extensions or put in a new pool and won’t tell us, so we don’t upgrade the area,” Flagler said. “As people add these extensions it adds more kilowatts to the system and it overtaxes the equipment.”
Additionally thunderstorms can bring down power lines or surrounding trees.
The birds and the bees pose another problem
The critters often build their nests near transformers, and squirrels are fond of chewing on the conductors, which short circuit the system, Stelter said.
In another demonstration, Ritter held a toy squirrel up to a conductor, causing a fuse to blow. It’s a scenario that Stelter said plays out fairly often.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated how often gloves are tested. PSEG LI tests them every three months.