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Crews put it all on the line

January 08, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

WILLIAMSPORT - They strap on their gaffs and shimmy 80-feet up icy utility poles. They lug their gear through ice storms, hurricanes and tornado-ravaged landscapes. Line crews put their lives on the line to restore power to the people.

But to these all-weather heroes, it's all in a day's work.

"They make what they do sound so easy, but these guys are on the front line," said Midge Tehan, general manager of corporate communications at Allegheny Power in Williamsport.

In a field pulsing with danger, Tehan said that safety awareness "permeates every corner" of Allegheny Power. Linemen must take an eight-hour break after working a 16-hour shift, wear protective gear and work in pairs when repairing energized, high-voltage lines.

"It's dangerous work, but don't tell our wives," said lineman Tony Green.

"If we do our jobs right, we don't have harrowing experiences," added Mark Klohonatz, substation construction manager.

But the potential is there.

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On Christmas Eve, Klohonatz got the call from Virginia Power.

The first major storm of the season struck that day, blanketing Southside and east-central Virginia with ice, knocking down power lines, and leaving some 300,000 homes and businesses without electricity. The storm was blamed for six traffic fatalities, and caused some $13 million in damage.

Despite the efforts of some 1,000 Virginia Power workers, nearly 200,000 of the utility's customers remained powerless Christmas night.

The next day, 121 Allegheny Power workers from across the country, including linemen Green and Ron Wolff, designer Jay Myers and Klohonatz, headed for Virginia.

"We were glad to see every one of them," said Dan Genest, spokesman for Virginia Power. "The line crews that worked with the Allegheny Power linemen have said they put in long hours and did excellent work."

As members of the Edison Electric Institute Mutual Assistance Group, many utilities, including Allegheny Power, agree to transfer a number of their employees to troubled areas on a temporary basis, Klohonatz said.

With seven years experience and classifications as linemen A - the top designation of linemen, with the expertise to work solo on secondary power lines - Wolff and Green helped repair the downed power lines that dotted Virginia.

"Ice loaded the trees down," said Green, who added that most of the fallen lines were along the roadways, which made them easier to reach.

But some damaged power lines were remote.

"There was one pole in the middle of a big beaver pond," said Myers. "We had to come in from both sides."

Green said when the terrain is too rough for vehicles, power crews have to carry their equipment. That was the case in January 1998 after an ice storm in upstate New York.

Without windchill, the air temperatures ranged between zero and 6 degrees and downed power wires were embedded in ice, Green said.

Among 110 Allegheny Power workers sent to help restore power to the devastated area, Green said he and some fellow linemen were walking over hard-packed ice covered with snow six miles off-road when the ice caved in and two of the linemen disappeared.

They had fallen into a beaver pond.

After being pulled to safety, one of the linemen had "instant ice on his glasses, beard and mustache," Green said. He said the nearly frozen men were taken back to their motel, where they changed clothes and went back to work.

Line crews contend with more than ice and snow, though.

Wolff said he was among the linemen who resurrected power lines downed by high summer winds in Michigan. Unlike the snow-covered landscape in New York, Wolff said "there weren't any houses standing" when he arrived in Michigan.

Green said Virginia Power customers, who were elated to see the out-of-town crews on the scene, clapped as they drove past on Interstate 95, and brought workers beverages, fruit and homemade cookies.

Hometown customers show appreciation, too, said Green, but tend to get impatient when their power isn't restored as quickly as they would like.

Tehan said the Allegheny Power hotline is always staffed to handle customer concerns, and crews are always on call. To ensure prompt service, lineman must live within 30 minutes of the office, Green said.

"It's important to be patient," said Tehan. "The problem has to be evaluated."

Before a damaged power line can be repaired, the cause and exact location of the damage has to be isolated, Myers said. Though Klohonatz said trees connecting with power lines is the main reason for power outages, factors besides storm-blown branches can cause power failures, he said.

"We try to look for the obvious, first," said Myers.

Though there is rarely evidence left on the scene, squirrels are among the biggest causes of power outages, said Wolff. The furry culprits hop onto lines, cross them, and leave countless energy consumers in the dark.

Placing animal guards on transformers can help prevent such damage, said Myers. He said other preventive measures include lightning arresters - sacrificial devices that are designed to take the brunt of lightning strikes - tree trimming and storm-tracking.

Klohonatz said Allegheny Power's transportation and distribution group watches weather radar screens, and alerts service centers that might be affected. Supervisors at those centers can then stock up on supplies, and keep linemen on duty if it appears a storm will hit.

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