The Electrical Worker online
April 2013

Super Storms Demand More
IBEW First Responders
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When they hear the words "first responders," most people probably draw upon images of uniformed public safety officers and firefighters rescuing citizens in trouble.

But when trouble comes in the gales of frequent and freakish storms, the first responders are often tree trimmers wielding chainsaws or utility linemen hanging out of bucket trucks to clear toppled trees and lift lines to let the ambulances and fire trucks in.

Thousands of these seasoned workers carry IBEW cards. And all of them are concerned that, as their numbers dwindle due to rolling waves of retirements, they and the communities they serve — sometimes hundreds of miles away from home — could be left in peril.

Sandy's Waves Test Gas Workers

After Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey coast last October, CNN aired video footage of soaring flames engulfing bungalows on the New Jersey Shore's beaches and shooting skyward in plumes from ruptured gas pipes that might be routine at nearby oil refineries but had no place in a summer vacation spot.

"Before the firefighters could come in, we had to cap the natural gas pipes and find valves that were covered by four feet of sand," says Tom Curtis, president, Neptune, N.J., Local 1820.

Curtis, a 33-year IBEW member, and his crew of Jersey Natural Gas workers readied to drive to the peninsula to cap the lines, then realized the roadway from the mainland had been completely washed away.

"We loaded six workers and their supervisor in a boat so we could get to the fires. We put out the biggest ones we could, but couldn't get to them all," says Curtis. "We had never experienced anything like that storm before, but most of our members worked 16-hour days for a full month and every classification, including meter readers and customer service representatives, pitched in."

Ed Stroup, business manager of Lakewood, N.J., Local 1289, representing workers at Jersey Central Power and Light, a subsidiary of First Energy, says, "All my guys did was work for 90 straight days, with only a few days off, after Sandy hit."

Alabama Linemen Help Rescue Northern Neighbors

While Stroup says local news media coverage of Sandy missed some of the heroic challenges faced by utility crews and others, local communities welcomed hundreds of workers who came from the Midwest, the South and other regions as part of mutual-assistance pacts between utility companies.

Three hundred IBEW members from Alabama Power traveled north to work on underground lines in New York City and spread out to Atlantic City, Colts Neck and Freehold on the Jersey Coast. They were greeted by residents who held community-wide cookouts to feed them. After they returned home, they received thank you notes from New Jersey schoolchildren. One wrote, "You are the best because you give us power. You guys are hard-working and I like it."

"These guys quickly developed a bond with the communities they worked in. Living in the South, they told me what they experienced was reminiscent of what they see as Southern hospitality," says Casey Shelton, business manager of System Council U-19, representing workers at Southern Company, "and they came home with zero accidents."

Midwest Members: 'We Love Our Jobs'

Mike Tackett, a 21-year member of Toledo, Ohio, Local 245, drove 600 miles with his cousin and union brother, Steven Herman, to assist members of Long Island, N.Y., Local 1049.

"We love our jobs," says Tackett. He and Herman were gone nearly eight weeks, returning home on Dec. 1. "By helping restore power, we made it possible for people along the Jersey coast to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. We just do the jobs that we were trained for. We took time away from our families, but we helped others and so many came up and thanked us." After returning home, Tackett left again, three days before Christmas, for a two-day storm restoration stint in Michigan.

Replenishing Experience and Knowledge

Tackett, 43, who began his career as a line clearance tree trimmer and entered his local's lineman apprenticeship program in 2000, is concerned that depleted forces could leave communities vulnerable in future emergencies as companies lag on hiring a new generation of linemen who thrive on their role as first responders. "We're losing a lot of the old knowledge," he says.

There seems to be no shortage of knowledge in the science community where researchers warn that climate change will trigger more powerful, unprecedented storms.

Winter Storm Nemo — Another Warning on Staffing

In February, while communities to the south were recovering from Sandy, winter storm Nemo pounded New England and New York, leaving 650,000 homes and businesses without power.

In Vermont, Kurt Staudter, a 24-year substation operator for National Grid and member of Worcester, Mass., Local 486, joined his co-workers on a schedule of 16 hours on and 8 hours off to help restore power.

In a column he writes for the Vermont Standard, Staudter, 55, recounted, "Somehow, somewhere, when I wasn't really paying attention, I turned into one of the old guys at the electric company."

Describing how downsizing has spiraled through attrition, Staudter wrote, "The work has been outsourced to contractors … One of the problems with this approach is that we aren't as good at responding to emergencies. It's cheaper for the company to pay millions in fines to state regulators than it is to have an adequate work force."

'Gray-haired Tsunami' Unites Unions, Communities

Linking the concerns of union members over understaffing with the anger and alarm of customers has turned Waterbury, Conn., Local 420 Business Manager Frank Cirillo into a celebrity of sorts in the local news media.

In 2011, after an autumn ice storm hit his region, dropping 150-year-old trees — still bearing leaves — on power lines, Cirillo and his members attended hearings to expose Connecticut Light and Power's poor response to power outages as a byproduct of profit-seeking by job-slashing.

"We're facing a gray-haired tsunami," said Cirillo, who, along with Meriden Local 457 Business Manager John Fernandes, worked to make staffing an issue in their latest contract negotiations.

Comparing recent storm restoration efforts to those of the past, Cirillo says, "Last year we had 2,000 crews come into Connecticut from outside and it took two weeks to restore power. But when Hurricane Gloria hit us dead on in 1985, only 800 outside workers in total were needed and we restored power in nine days. And we didn't have cell phones back then or central dispatch centers."

The difference, Cirillo says, was having competent managers who came up from the ranks and enough full-time workers who kept trees trimmed during the year, knew the circuits, changed wires and "could get cooking [when the work needed to be done] like Julia Childs."

Under pressure from the local unions, citizens and the state's public service commission, CL&P, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, has agreed to hire additional linemen and begin a class for new helpers. CL&P's appointment of a new president and COO has improved the union-company relationship.

"Mutual assistance is a wonderful thing, but it isn't any way to run a utility," says IBEW International Representative Bill Neiles, executive director of the National Utility Industry Training Fund, a partnership between the IBEW and four utility companies.

While the support programs began as pacts between neighboring utilities, he says, they are now so expansive that the Air Force Reserves are flying equipment and people from coast to coast to restore power after storms.

"Linemen and tree trimmers don't complain because they are happy to help," says Neiles. But the logistical challenges of housing and feeding incoming workers are immense. Utilities need to step up permanent hiring, he says. And public utility commissions — under pressure to improve recovery times while simultaneously keeping bills low — should allow companies to recover costs for training and hiring new workers by granting reasonable rate increase requests.

Boot Camps Turn Out Fresh Recruits

In 2008, in an effort to spread that knowledge, the IBEW and a consortium of utility companies established a training trust fund to launch regional training centers to offer refresher courses for existing linemen and boot camps where prospective linemen could get a taste for the work and employers could look them over.

But the recession hit and many utilities slowed down plans to hire replacements for retiring linemen. The economy and a lack of consensus on its direction halted progress on the trust.

Last year, the IBEW and partners Tucson Electric Power, Detroit Edison, Alabama Power and Kansas City Power and Light began utilizing the resources of the National Utility Industry Training Fund. Already boot camps have been set up in Alabama, Kansas City and Michigan and more are now being considered.

In the past, applicants for lineman and high-voltage jobs may have performed well on tests and theory, but balked when faced with the potential physical dangers of their work. Exposing new applicants to climbing and other physical requirements has proven to be a truer test of aptitude. And early safety training has boosted their effectiveness.

"During my first storm duty assignment, I was able to bounce around from different crews and help without being told what to do each time," says Jacob Little, a recent camp graduate employed by Alabama Power. "I could just step right in, get my safety briefing and start working with the knowledge I gained at boot camp."

Sixty-two lineman schools are in operation across the U.S., including many offered by community colleges. But they graduate only about 2,000 trainees per year. More boot camps can help fill the gap.

Michael Neighbors, a training manager for Southern Company, says, "Our field supervisors rave about the knowledge of our boot camp graduates compared to yesterday's new hires, especially from a safety standpoint where they come in already knowing the right safety rules and procedures."


Communities depended upon IBEW members from other companies to safely restore power after Hurricane Sandy. Will more frequent storms and staffing issues jeopardize future restoration efforts?


Crews plan for a long day of storm repair.


Ruptured lines kept members of Neptune, N.J., Local 1820 on 16-hour days for a month.


Before firefighters could come in to quell flames from ruptured gas pipes, New Jersey Gas workers had to cap them and find valves that were covered by four feet of sand.

NJATC Curriculum —
A Winner for Linemen Training

The IBEW has been sounding the alarm on the need to ramp up training linemen and other utility workers for several years. In 2007, when IBEW leaders began meeting with four companies as part of a joint training trust for the utility industry, two goals of the partnership were developing a standardized curriculum and a certification program.

"We couldn't reach agreement on either goal," says IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter.

As a co-chairman of the training trust and a former business manager of an inside construction local, International Secretary-Treasurer Sam Chilia drew upon his own experience with the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee.

While mostly seen as providing training for inside electricians, the NJATC had — for 50 years — been training linemen and substation technicians for the outside construction branch. Enrollment of apprentices in both disciplines today stands at 4,500.

Over the past few years, the NJATC has modernized training, moving from workbooks to a blended learning platform that combines face-to-face contact between instructors and students with the use of computer tools.

Two state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar simulators help students learn how to safely make transformer connections and use protective equipment to prevent electrocutions. Through online testing of students, the NJATC is able to continuously increase the program's effectiveness, focusing on areas where students are exhibiting difficulty grasping concepts. And the courses lead to certification.

Chilia proposed that IBEW locals ask signatory utility companies, including cooperatives and municipal entities, to adopt the NJATC program as their standardized curriculum. While linemen who troubleshoot problems for utility companies are not part of the construction industry, the basic skills and safety training needed to succeed in both sectors are identical.

Last fall, Chilia's proposal was adopted as the National Utility Industry Training Fund, through a new partnership with the NJATC, began marketing the NJATC outside and substation programs to signatory utilities across the country.

"The NJATC has been enormously helpful in working with the IBEW Utility Department to help provide a common baseline for training all linemen wherever they work in our industry, from outside construction to answering trouble calls," says Bill Neiles, executive director of the National Utility Industry Training Fund.

The IBEW Media Department is producing a video to introduce utility companies to the NUITF and the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. More discussion of the training innovations was held during the IBEW Utility Conference April 3-5 in San Diego.

Key Findings on the Energy Workforce

Over the next decade, almost 52 percent of the industry is likely to retire or leave for other reasons.

By 2015, 36 percent of the energy work force may need to be replaced due to potential retirement or attrition, with an additional 16 percent to be replaced by 2020 — almost 110,000 employees in positions identified as the most critical by industry.

The number of employees age 53 and above has increased by 5 percent since 2006.

The number of employees with more than 30 years of service has increased by more than 5 percent since 2006.

Source: Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of electric natural gas and nuclear utilities and their associations. CEWD maintains an active partnership with IBEW.