NEWBERRY — When snow and ice were in the forecast in mid-February, Garrett Felker figured he would miss sitting by the fire and drinking hot chocolate or building a snow man with his young daughter, Ella.
But for Felker, bundling up was not to stay warm while making snow angels. Bundling up included putting on rubber sleeves, rubber gloves and other safety equipment.
A nine-year veteran with the Newberry Electric Cooperative, Felker is a lineman who is out in the elements helping people get their power back on during weather events.
He also had extra boots, socks and gloves if needed to help him stay as warm as possible as he and his crew worked 16 hours on and eight hours off.
The storm was forecast to be a rough one. As it turned out, this time the county was spared the brunt of the ice damage felt by the Lowcountry where some people were without power for a week or more.
Working power outages in the storm carried risks for Felker and his crew.
“If roads are in poor condition, we have to take our time driving on them. We don’t go any faster than we have to in those big trucks,” he said. “Some of our trucks are four-wheel drive but some are not. “We try to get to businesses as fast as we can (during an outage).,”
He said some businesses have backup generators, which are a help to the businesses but pose a risk to linemen and crew.
“Some of the newer generators are so quiet it is hard to hear them running,” he said. “Our crews must be extra aware because if a generator is running, power can still be on in an area.”
Solar powered homes also pose a threat to their safety. Workers at NEC called solar panels a silent killer for linemen and crew.
“The sun charges battery banks and those can backfeed to houses when the power is out,” Felker said. “That’s one more reason you need to be mentally sharp in what you are doing. It is not something to take lightly.”
He realizes, as a lineman, that being called out to serve during an outage is something that comes with the territory. His two older children — ages 15 and 17 — understand but he wonders how he’ll explain that to his now 17-month-old daughter.
“I would love to be with them and be enjoying the snow with them, but it does not always work that way,” he said.
Truck crew like family
The crew on his truck is another kind of family, he said. The truck holds a five-person team, with a foreman and two people in the bucket and two people on the line truck.
“It’s like a family,” Felker said, “because we really spend more time with one another each week than we do with our own families. But it’s all about getting the job done.”
His crew also mobilizes for disasters. Felker helped with power outages following Hurricane Irene, for example.
He began as an apprentice who helped bring supplies to people working the bucket truck, and over about five years of training, earned his certification as a lineman.
For Felker experience is a great teacher. He said crews encounter everything from broken poles to wire being down in several places to two or more lines being down. Other situations include having a tree stuck on a line bending the line and grounding out the connection but not breaking the line.
In that case, the crew must remove the tree but no repairs would be needed to the line.
If a line were broken by a tree, the crew would cut the tree off, splice the wire with automatic connecting sleeves and then pull onto the nearest pole.
Once a call is made and a problem found, the crew not only makes the repair, but the team rides out the entire access lane that goes with that line to make sure there are no other problems.
The workers are wary of the transformer going through the main line and they keep watch for generators.
Lines carry 7,200 volts so they must be careful when approaching downed lines and making repairs.
“I have the ultimate respect for our linemen,” said Debra Shaw, NEC vice president of member and public relations. “It’s a dangerous job and they have to be 100 percent focused on their work.”
As part of that job, Felker takes his turn being on call 24/7. There is a scheduled eight-week rotation, but if something major happens, like an ice storm, everyone is called in.
He said their goal is to restore everyone’s power as quickly as possible while first making sure of the safety of their crew — something to keep in mind the next time an ice storm comes this way.