BIPCo’s linemen keep the lights on

While working in dangerous conditions
Thu, 01/03/2019 - 8:30pm

Under stormy skies, in sometimes challenging conditions, the Block Island Power Company’s linemen keep the island’s power flowing.

It can be a dangerous job keeping the island’s lights on and its electrical grid in tiptop working order, especially during hurricane season and amidst winter storms.

That job is the responsibility of three men: Evan Carey, Tom Durden and Jim Stockman.

While performing their daily duties these men sometimes face life or death scenarios, and are aware of the risk, as they all have family members. Durden and Stockman have families, while Carey is single, but his father lives on the island.

Due to the risk, the linemen are required to have certifications in first aid, defibrillators, and CPR. Their primary job is to construct, maintain, and repair BIPCo’s infrastructure, keeping it in safe working order.

Stockman, who’s been a BIPCo lineman for six years, told The Times that, “If one of our primary lines breaks,” it presents a danger to human life at the street level. “There’s 2,400 volts of electricity surging through that power line,” he said. “That can kill someone.”

That means the linemen must act fast to conduct repairs in the middle of inclement and extreme weather conditions. Stockman said with BIPCo’s new smart meter technology, the crew is notified immediately on their smartphones, sometimes in the middle of the night, if there is a problem with the company’s infrastructure.

“We come in as soon as there’s an issue,” said Durden, who’s worked as a lineman for 11 years and was called into action during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “Sandy was bad. We were grounded,” he said. “We had to shut circuits down and disconnect transformers.”

One thing the linemen all agreed about was that it can get pretty windy when they’re working on the lines. “We work in winds up to 35 miles-per-hour,” said Durden. “It’s not fun at times.”

“We sometimes work in winds up to 60 miles-per-hour,” added Stockman. “National Grid can only work in winds up to 35 miles-per-hour.”

Stockman said rain can be a “very challenging” condition to work in. “There are sometimes sideways rainstorms on Block Island.”

“The ice storms are the worst,” said Durden. “That’s when ice encases the lines” and causes “bumping.” That means the power lines start knocking into each other creating a dangerous situation, and sometimes fires.

Stockman said during Evan Carey’s first week on the job last December they encountered a pretty nasty blizzard. “There were 60-mile-an-hour winds, and our buckets were swaying back and forth,” he said, while noting Carey’s apprehensive reaction. “I said, ‘Everybody wants to be a lineman until you have to do lineman stuff,’” said Stockman, tongue in cheek, before chuckling.

Stockman did admit that, “You can’t be afraid of heights to do this job, which none of us are.”

Carey, an electrician by trade, said he knew what he was getting into when he was hired as BIPCo’s third lineman. “I knew what was entailed.” Carey, a Block Island School graduate, said he saw an ad for the job while working as an electrician at Electric Boat in Quonset. His reason for applying for the job: “I wanted to get into the outdoor electrical business.”

Stockman said he was hired as a lineman after BIPCo’s general manager Dave Milner asked him to climb a pole to change a streetlight to prove he wasn’t afraid of heights. Stockman previously worked as a mechanic maintaining the diesel generators at Champlin’s Marina, which involved some electrical duties.

Durden said he had “no background” in the electrical field prior to taking the lineman job. “I was managing the grocery store. So it was mostly on-the-job training for me,” he said.

All three of the linemen credited Jeffery Wright, BIPCo’s President, with updating their gear, equipment and training.

“Jeff does a great job,” said Stockman.

The linemen said they work with at least one support person at all times, and have a First-Aid kit and AED device aboard BIPCo’s specially equipped bucket truck to ensure safety procedures are met.

When operating the bucket truck, Stockman said, one lineman works in the bucket while the other serves as the “ground guy.” The linemen wear protective gear when working, including white helmets, yellow jackets, goggles, rubber gloves and sleeves, and special fire resistant clothing.

As for what they enjoy most about the job, all three men said they like working outdoors, and with electricity.

“No two jobs are alike,” said Durden. “It’s always something different, and we get to work outside.”

“I like working outdoors, and with electricity,” said Carey.

“I like the excitement of working with live wires,” said Stockman.

When asked their thoughts regarding the holiday season, Carey quipped that the ratepayers should “make sure to turn on as many Christmas lights as possible.”

Stockman was more serious and measured with his reply. He said, “When you see our trucks on the side of the road — please slow down.”

Wright said, “The BIPCo line workers are the most dedicated line workers I have ever worked with. Rebuilding the BIPCo system during the day is only half of their work. The other half is spent keeping and getting the lights back on when they go out. They are on call 24-7-365 and with very few exceptions, at least two of them are on the island ready and willing to respond to our customers as needed. That includes all hours of the night and day and in all kinds of weather.”