Seattle City (spot)Light: James Alexander

James Alexander is a line crew chief for Seattle City Light operating out of the South Service Center. He started in 1999 as part of the pre-apprenticeship lineworker program and in the last eighteen years he has risen through the ranks to his position in charge of an overhead line crew. We sat down with James to discuss his journey at City Light for Lineworker Appreciation Week.


Line Crew Chief James Alexander at the South Service Center

“We had a class of twelve when I started the Pre-Apprenticeship Lineworker program. I didn’t know too much about the job before then. My stepdad worked for Tacoma Power, and he asked me if I was afraid of heights. I told him I didn’t care for heights but I wasn’t afraid of heights. I figured I’d give it a shot,” said James.

“I took the test twice; the first time I made it to the interview round, but didn’t get a seat. The second time, I got into the program. There were almost two thousand applicants, so it was pretty competitive.”

“When you’re first hired, you have six months as a pre-apprentice. At the end of five months you take climbing school. Then you’re given another round of testing to enter the apprenticeship. One night a week during your apprenticeship, you have four hours of book time after you’ve worked your day. Even after you finish your apprenticeship, you learn every day on the job. You’re always learning different tools and techniques.”

“After seeing some of the senior guys retire, I decided to step up and take on a leadership role. I had good training from my former crew chiefs that I’d worked for, so I was prepared for it.”

“Depending on the crew size, I’m a working crew chief or on safety watch. Much of the work is safety; running the jobs and planning the jobs takes a lot of planning to make sure nobody gets hurt. There is a lot of responsibility involved. We work hard to make it home to our families safe every day, hopefully with all of our fingers and toes intact.”

“I’ve always been a hands-on person; I learned that from my grandfather. I like being outside and having a different problem every day. One day I might be working on a 20-30 foot pole, and the next I might be working on a 120 foot tower. I’m like to see what I’m working on. With overhead work, you can trace the lines and see what’s going on.”

“There are some sacrifices to being a lineworker. We get calls in the middle of the night. I’ve missed a lot of soccer games and dinners and full eight hours of sleep. It was a little grueling, but it pays off in the end.”

“It’s all about keeping the lights on for everybody else. We have a lot of pride in our work when we are out there. Even if we are cold and wet, we know we are working to keep people warm.”

A Day in the Life of a Lineworker

Recognized as one of the most dangerous professions in the United States, lineworkers are known for their strong physical endurance, mental toughness and undeniable spirit of camaraderie. Every day, more than 117,000 of these skilled professionals help deliver electrical power from generating stations into homes, businesses and other facilities.

Being a lineworker is a physically demanding job—partly because of the tasks at hand and partly due to the exposure of weather conditions (e.g. rain, snow, extreme heat). One job might require climbing a 100-foot pole while the next might demand installation and repair work in 40 mph wind gusts. From construction and troubleshooting to transmission/distribution and the maintenance of electrical power systems, it’s no wonder lineworkers are often referred to as the heart of a utility.

We couldn’t let National Lineworker Appreciation Day slip by without shining a spotlight on one of our crews. Enter Crew Chief Vinod Kumar and his team. Working together for two years, it’s obvious the group enjoys each other’s company just as much as they enjoy their jobs. We sat down with the group to get a glimpse of what a day on the job looks like and what they value most about their roles.

L-R: Vinod Kumar, Fred Bolar, Cole Dennett, Jeff Anderson
(not pictured Pre-Apprentice Lineworker Ryan Shoeneman)

 

Can you walk us through a timeline of a “typical” day at work, from morning to end?

Vinod Kumar: “Overhead line crews begin the day at 7:45 a.m. Every day begins with our safety stand down. This involves all crew members from every crew on the dock and our supervisors. Crews are updated with information they need to know from the previous day. We’ll also share updates like classes or safety training. After that, the Crew Chief discusses the job(s) for the day with their crew. Afterward, we’ll order any material that is needed from the warehouse (if we don’t already have it). Once everything is compiled, we leave the dock for the job site and take our coffee break on the way. When we arrive, we make the work site safe by displaying any required signage that informs the public there is work being done in the immediate area. Before anyone leaves the ground to start work, we’ll discuss the job one last time in what we call a ‘tailgate meeting’ which informs all crew members of potential hazards and ensures that everyone is on the same page. Safety is the most important part of our job! We normally stop at 11:45 to take our lunch. However, there are times when we must work through our lunch (usually if there is an outage to customers). Once the job is complete, we’ll get back to the shop to unload the material, clean up, and go home at 4:15 p.m.”

You mentioned an overhead crew—can you please explain what that means?

VK: “City Light has two types of line crews—overhead and underground. I’m an overhead crew chief. Our crew works on the powerlines that are installed above ground or overhead as we call it. Anything involving the lines overhead is attended to by our crews. Some places have powerlines underground. That’s the work of our underground crews. There are also some instances where a single pole will have both overhead customers and underground customers.”

Tell us about your customers. Who do you serve?

VK: “We serve the rate payers in the City of Seattle. That includes companies like Boeing and Nucor Steel all the way to a tiny house. If a business or residence is in City Light’s service territory and they have power, they’re our customer. We also have internal customers like the warehouse, engineers, customer service, etc.”

Can you describe the culture of the lineworker environment? Can you share what it’s like to be part of the team and what that means?

 Jeff Anderson: “We’re fortunate our crew gets along so well. We enjoy ourselves when we come to work. Because the work is dangerous, I feel like there’s more of a personal connection—it’s a camaraderie. We’re more than just co-workers, and I think that contributes to us having more fun on the job and hanging out together outside of work. I care about what’s going on with these guys.”

Cole Dennett: “We all have each other’s back and help one another. There might be something I don’t know as well as Jeff or Fred, and that’s ok because I rely on them for that information. In turn, they rely on me for what I know.”

Ryan Shoeneman: “When I started, everyone said that this would be my second family. We work a lot of long hours. Sometimes we spend more time with our crews than at home which builds camaraderie. One second you’re talking about a job, and the next, you’re talking about how your kid started walking. I mean, we’re going to each other’s weddings…spending time outside of work together…”

JA: “I agree. I’ve gone on vacations with people that I work with.”

CD: “Yeah. You went to my wedding and that was ten hours away.”

JA: “Yes, I did. I drove ten hours to get to his wedding and then flew to Mexico with another guy I work with after that. Family is probably a fair word to use when describing our relationships.”

Are there any special rules or sayings that your crew abides by?

VK: “Safety is the slogan for everybody. If you’re doing dangerous work, everyone must take care of each other. Sometimes it’s a very pressurized job and we must get it done safely in a timely manner.”

What are the skills needed to perform this line of work?

CD: “On-the-job experience will come with time, but I think one thing to consider for someone coming in off the street is their level of physical endurance. Sometimes we’re working 24-48 hours. If you don’t have the physical endurance to do this job, it’s not only going to wear you out mentally, but physically. If you’re not in it, you can get hurt easily. It’s not a ten-pound crossarm, it’s a 110-pound crossarm, and you don’t want to drop that 40 or 50 feet.”

JA: “The ability to keep calm under pressure is very important. Things won’t always go as planned and what we’re working with is dangerous. If you find yourself in a position that isn’t exactly how you wanted it to go and you can’t keep calm and work yourself out of that situation in a safe manner, that’s when people get hurt. I think almost more so than being able to do the job in a perfect condition, you need to be able to do the job in the imperfect condition—in the worst scenario, you need to be able to perform at your best.”

FB: “You also, for lack of a better word, must have a little crazy in you. We do stuff that isn’t normal. No one wants to climb up a pole anywhere from 50-100 feet. It’s unnatural. You can always fall off a pole, or once you get to the top of it, you’re dealing with electricity. Normally as a kid, you’re taught to stay away from electricity. So, it’s good to have that adventurous quality and mentality to do this work.”

What keeps you motivated coming to work each day? Aside from your crew, why do you enjoy this job? Why is it important? What does it mean to you?

CD: “I’m not in an office. I’m outside every day. That’s what I like about it. On the worst days, yeah, I want to be inside, but on the sunny days, you can stop…say…near Lake Washington and see the reflection of all mountains with Rainier in the background. Or you stop by the Sound and watch the ferries go by…it’s just beautiful landscape. Especially when you get above on the hilltop. Jeff’s always taking panoramic photos.”

JA: “There’s gratification from taking a storm call when the power is out and it’s cold outside. There’s definite satisfaction to hear someone yell ‘Thank you’ from the window after the lights come back on. I also like doing something where I can see what I accomplished. From a young age, I always knew that I didn’t want to attend a four-year college because I wanted to put stuff together with my hands. When I leave work every day, I can look back and see what I accomplished. It’s not just moving a stack of paper across my desk—I put something together and now it’s functioning and serving a purpose.”

What advice would you give someone seeking this line of work?

RS: “I think it was good for me to start at the bottom and work my way up from being a laborer. It was good to see all the different areas and careers that City Light had to offer. To me, the line worker position was most appealing, but I didn’t just come off the street and say ‘I want to be a lineman.’ I feel like I had a little bit of head start…being familiar with the area…with some of the tools…the groundwork. Being a material supplier, made me feel better about getting into the apprenticeship program. I felt comfortable and had more knowledge under my belt before I jumped in. If you didn’t go to lineman college, I would say get an entry level position.”

JA: “My advice is to make sure it’s something you want to do. Do a little research before you jump in because it’s not for everyone. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s bad. You mentally need to be in place where you can deal with the bad. When apprentices come through, we’ll teach them how to do the job—it’s a learned skill—but you can’t teach someone to have the right attitude.”

VK: “Patience is also important.”

CD: “It’s a full-time job with four years of work and school. It doesn’t get easier as you progress. There’s more pressure and the job gets more dangerous. When you’re up in the air with somebody else, you’re relying on each other to stay safe. So, that’s an added pressure on top of schoolwork and attending class. Many people don’t realize that there’s school on top of a full-time job so just be prepared for that. Long nights.”

CD: “You’ve also got to learn to swallow your pride and get rid of the ‘I know this’ and ‘I know that’ attitude. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom and work your way to the top.”

RS: “Flexibility is also important. It was easier when I was a single man, coming in without a family—I could take a call out whenever I wanted. Now, I’m married and have a son and, well, it’s not so easy anymore. Going to school a couple nights a week and then getting called back in, it’s like ‘Honey, can I work this weekend?’ Thankfully, I have a loving wife that supports my career, but there is give and take. It’s hard to find that good balance between family and work. You can’t make everyone happy so you must learn to pick your battles and be flexible.”

Thank you to all our crews for the incredible work and heart that’s poured into each job 365 days a year!

Seattle City (spot)Light: Ruben Diaz

Ruben Diaz came to Washington to find a sasquatch: Squatch from the Seattle Supersonics, specifically. The man who played Squatch was a family friend who moved to the Seattle area from Ruben’s home in the rural, open land of southern New Mexico.

When Ruben was ready for a change, he followed suit. Since he had been employed as a journeyman lineworker at the Otero County Electric Coop while in the Land of Enchantment, getting a job at City Light was a natural choice when he arrived.

These days, Ruben lives in Snoqualmie on 1.5 acres–plenty of room for his horse to roam. He’s worked at City Light for eight years, and in that time he’s climbed the career ladder to his current position as overhead crew coordinator for the North Service Center.

In this week’s Seattle City (spot)light, Ruben talks about his journey to the Seattle area and his crucial job function at City Light.


Overhead Crew Coordinator Ruben Diaz (r) and Tatum (l), his daughter and cowgirl-in-training

“Me and Squatch were friends in school, and he moved up here first. My brother-in-law followed, and I came up here a couple of times to visit. My journeyman lineworker card was a ticket out of New Mexico, so I thought I’d give Washington a try.”

“Basically what I do is review every overhead job. Overhead work is just what is sounds like. It includes everything from setting poles to connecting the equipment on the poles themselves,” said Ruben.

“Any overhead job for the North service area comes to my desk. I review it for mistakes, check for materials to be available, order poles, get locations for digging and make sure permits are accurate and ready. Then I go out into the field to do a visual inspection before coordinating with supervisors to assign a crew.”

“There are three people at City Light who do the same job I do. These three desks are hubs, and during outages everything comes back to us. If crews need something, they pick up the phone and we get to their requests right away. Crews also tell us what they see—poles broken, wires on the ground, etc.—and we get that information to dispatch and keep supervisors informed. We do all of this while we’re also coordinating with crews down south.”

“I came on as a journeyman lineman, and I was on an overhead crew that did jobs with large scopes then. But it wasn’t until I got this job that I really started to see all the piece of the puzzle come together.”

“As a lineman, you get in the mode of seeing the task at hand. In my seat, you see that there’s a lot of work that goes into getting the entire crew to the point where they can accomplish a task. There’s a lot of people involved.”

“It never ceases to amaze me, what people can do when they have the tools and the resources they need to accomplish something.”