Linemen compete in lifesaving skills

Utility linemen show skill at responding to injuries atop poles

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 28, 2012 

  • More information “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb, performed by Glen Campbell I am a lineman for the county. and I drive the main road. Searchin’ in the sun for another overload. I hear you singing in the wire. I can hear you through the whine. And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line. I know I need a small vacation. But it don’t look like rain. And if it snows that stretch down south, won’t ever stand the strain. And I need you more than want you. And I want you for all time. And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.

— At 62, Harris Morrison can boast 36 years of shambling up busted utility poles along storm-battered highways, fighting through flooded gullies and broken limbs to switch a thousand strangers’ lights back on.

On Tuesday, he shimmied up 20 feet just to save Kool, a 105-pound dummy-in-distress dangling from a rope – the object in a race to name the state’s fastest lineman.

“You OK, Kool?” he called from the ground as the clock started ticking. “Mayday! Mayday!”

A few weeks ago, you’d have found the Sanford-based lineman in Virginia, cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. He recalled how Hurricane Fran kept him away from home for three weeks, stringing up power lines knocked down by millions of branches. Hurricane Floyd kept him out on the lines, too.

But for Tuesday’s 2012 Pole-Top Rescue Competition in Raleigh, he honed life-saving skills he has never had to use and hopes he never will. His time: 2 minutes, 29 seconds.

“I’m out of breath,” he said, huffing on the ground next to a rescued Kool. Many utility workers Morrison’s age have shifted to other jobs. But he likes being outdoors, and he likes being useful.

For most people, Morrison’s occupation conjures a solitary worker making his lonely path down empty highways, the “Wichita Lineman” of popular song.

Consider, though, that power-line installers and repairmen consistently make the top 10 on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of dangerous jobs. In 2011, they logged 27 fatal injuries.

Still, pole-top rescues are rare for linemen. In 37 years with N.C. Electric Cooperatives, safety director Tommy Greer knows of only two.

But OSHA requires linemen to be able to climb to an injured partner, lower him down and perform CPR within five minutes. To keep the procedures feeling like second-nature, the state’s 26 Electric Cooperatives hold a contest every two years.

“You’ve got to be like a cat coming down that pole,” said Dale Lambert, the CEO of Randolph EMC, acting as the competition’s emcee. “You come too quick and it’ll grab you.”

The clock starts at the words, “You, OK?” From there, a lineman has to sprint to the truck, put in a distress call, strap on a belt and a pair of climbing hooks, shoot 20 feet up the pole, pound a screwdriver into the wood, hang a rope from it, loop the rope under Kool’s arms, lower him to the ground and perform five seconds of CPR.

“The hardest part is getting all the stuff on and getting it on right,” said Chuck Nance of the Brunswick EMC.

And not dropping it. Descending the pole to fetch a screwdriver will tack on a fatal number of extra minutes.

The competition had to be postponed because nearly all the two-dozen competitors were scattered around the country, picking up after Sandy.

Chris Griffin from the Union Power Cooperative came to the competition fresh from the Virginia-West Virginia line, where he reports, “They had a good little bit of devastation.”

For a few hours Tuesday, he held a new record in his category with 1 minute, 57 seconds. But he would see that record shattered twice in a day. New champ: Leonard Person with the Tri-County EMC: 1 minute, 33 seconds. Using a cable to climb, the traditional method, Kenny Simmons of Pee Dee EMC managed to climb the pole a hair slower, finishing at 1 minute, 36 seconds.

Griffin didn’t mind.

“I’d want the guy behind me to know how to do it,” he said. “Wouldn’t you?”

Hoisted back to the top of the pole, assuming his injured lineman pose, Kool appeared grateful to be in practiced hands.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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