|Frank Weber (right) uses a hot stick and rubber gloves to tie wire into the ceramic insulator. This technique is rarely used today. Photo circa 1975.|
Frank Weber looks back on career as lineman
They are the unsung heroes of rural America. Like the humble postman, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” stays REC linemen from “swift completion of their appointed rounds.” In times of power outages and repair, REC linemen proudly remain dedicated to keeping alive the legacy of pioneering linemen.
ECI REC Member Services Director Frank Weber was an REC lineman for 33 years. His career began with Buchanan County REC in 1971, then continuing as a lineman through the merger with Benton County Electric Cooperative Association that formed ECI REC. In 2004, Weber left the highline poles for his current job coordinating member services. He fondly recalls his days a lineman.
“Like the landscape of rural Iowa, a lot has changed since I first started in 1971. Back when I first started with Buchanan County REC, we climbed poles for everything—installation, maintenance, and repair. We went from climbing poles to working with state-of-the-art equipment in a comparatively short amount of time.”
|Elbow trucks made working in hard-to-reach places easier when they hit the scene in the 1980s.|
As a lineman, Weber felt he was carrying on a tradition that began with the Rural Electrification Act (REA) of 1936—one of the most important pieces of legislation during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. “The advent of RECs in the 1930s basically revolutionized farm life in rural America!”
According to Weber, it allowed the federal government to make low-interest loans to non-profit cooperatives. Privately owned utility companies were reluctant to serve the rural population, saying rural service was not profitable.
Following the rural electrification drive during the 1930s, there was a wide expansion in the number of available jobs in the electric power industry. Power line work continued to evolve as household electricity became more universal, and the public became more dependent upon electrical power. Due to the extensive traveling required and the hazardous nature of the job, in the early days, the occupation appealed to only a hardy few. Those who did join the ranks had the reputation of being hard workers who took immense pride in their occupation.
Today, with better tools, equipment, vehicles, training, and safety standards and procedures, the industry is much safer to work in. Weber received his initial training through a 12-month lineman training course in Sheldon at the Northwest Iowa Vocational School, now known as Northwest Iowa Community College. He learned basic electricity concepts and line construction using REA Cooperative Specs and Safety Code Standards.
"When I was hired, I went through a Green Grass Apprenticeship Program. On-the-job safety was always emphasized. Don Greene, one of our job training and safety instructors, used to say, ‘These safety rules were written in blood … so just follow them!’ In all the years that I have worked here, I have never forgotten those words!”
Power linemen work on both live (energized) or dead (de-energized) power lines. With live lines, workers need to use protection to eliminate any contact with electrical apparatus. All linemen wear personal protection equipment (PPE) to eliminate chances of inadvertent contact. In some cases around high voltage wires, long sticks were used while wearing rubber gloves, so linemen could safely work at a distance, like from an insulated aerial device or basket truck. Weber called this process “hot-sticking” or “rubber-gloving.” Hot-sticking was frequently used to place new poles or replace damaged insulators.
“Around 1974, we started doing bucket work using a 28-foot truck around live wires. We were able to do changes without shutting off power. It was the first truck we really used. Unfortunately, it did have its limitations—especially if power lines were out in a field or could not be reached from the road.” In the 1980s, 55-foot elbow-trucks replaced these smaller counterparts, and working in hard-to-reach places became easier.
“Another thing we used to do was maintain, repair, and re-install underground cable. We also moved poles for wider roads and replaced the ones that rotted.”
Weber explained that underground polyethylene high density cables started being utilized in the late 1950s. “We discovered the cables were not holding up well, so they had to be replaced with a newer type of rubber-based cable. Also, a lot of the old poles were starting to deteriorate and had to be replaced, too.”
Although these tasks kept linemen busy, one of the crew’s biggest responsibilities was keeping things up and running during storms, natural disasters, and power outages.
“I was on call pretty much all the time back then. We didn’t have cell phones of course, so that meant I literally had to stay beside the phone when I was on call … and that was often!”
When the job of member services director for ECI REC opened, Weber was ready for a change and applied. “When you’re fifty, you find driving an office chair is easier than cranking on wires,” he joked. About his decision to stay with ECI REC, Weber said, “I got to know many of our members during my service time here and felt loyalty to them. I like to use my experience in operations to assist me with helping members understand how electricity works for them.”
Much has changed since Weber started with ECI REC. “Farming has changed, grain handling has changed, and technology has REALLY changed! County roads have been widened and improved to accommodate heavier traffic and larger equipment, and more and more housing developments are being built in the country. But ECI REC has always been able to adapt and change with the times.”