In today’s utility industry, linemen rely on bucket trucks and specialized rigging methods to get the job done. At the 2015 International Lineman’s Rodeo, however, the apprentices had to return to their roots by tying knots and splicing ropes. Event Coordinator Rick Childers says the apprentice CPR contest had become routine over time, and it was time for the competitors to go back to the basics.
“A lot of the competitors were scratching their heads because these basic skills are either not taught or they are forgotten,” said Childers, who works for IBEW Local 66 and is a member of the International Lineman’s Rodeo Association (ILRA) board of directors.
Three apprentices — Chris Sanchez of the LADWP, Mitch Nelson of Duke Energy and Darren White of Ameren — proved they could not only execute these basic line skills in the mystery events but also score the most points on the written test, pole climb and hurt man rescue. These three winners beat out 300 other apprentices for the top honors at the 2015 International Lineman’s Rodeo.
Journeymen linemen also had the opportunity to go for the gold. Rather than competing individually, they worked together in three-person teams in several divisions, including investor-owned utility (IOU); electric membership corporation (EMC), rural electric association (REA) and rural electric cooperative (REC); municipal; contractor; senior; and military.
Overall, Cobb EMC secured both first and third place, with Duke Energy placing second out of 229 total journeyman teams. For the divisions, the first-place finishers were Duke Energy in the IOU division; Cobb EMC for the REA/EMC/co-op division and the senior division; IBEW Local 1245 for the municipal division; IBEW Local 1439 for the contractor division; and the U.S. Army for the military division.
Sgt. Rustin Owen, who has served as a rodeo competitor and judge for the last 10 years, says the reserves were deployed prior to the 2015 event, but three teams still competed in the military division from Hawaii, North Carolina and Virginia.
“This is the 10th year that we’ve had a military division at the rodeo,” said Owen, who just retired from the U.S. Army. “It’s a huge thing for our guys because it is the only time they get to be with all these other linemen. The training, interaction and knowledge gained from all the experience levels are very important to us.”
Talent on Display
Each year, Childers says the number of competitors continues to grow at the International Lineman’s Rodeo. Case in point: This year, the rodeo had 1,003 competitors, which is 80 to 100 more than normal.
“It’s such a great trade to be in, and the rodeo gives linemen the opportunity to show us what they’ve got,” Childers noted.
Ben Rodriguez, a line mechanic for the LADWP, says his utility traveled to the expo and rodeo with four journeyman lineman teams, two apprentices and four judges. He and his pole partner have competed together for four years and, before that, he competed for three years as an apprentice.
“It’s a wonderful event because it allows us to see different tools and methods of doing line work,” said Rodriguez, whose team took 22nd place in the journeyman division. “We enjoy the competitive aspect of the International Lineman’s Rodeo. We can revert back to our younger days and display our talents and abilities as linemen.”
Ramping Up for the Rodeo
While the rodeo only lasts one day — from sunup to close to sundown in mid-October — the apprentices and journeymen often start practicing for the international event months beforehand.
For example, Justin Kropp, a journeyman lineman for Salt River Project, says his team practiced three to four hours every Saturday for about two months to prepare for the International Lineman’s Rodeo.
“We know that every year, we will be covering the neutral and doing rubber-gloving,” Kropp said. “We use hot sticks in our everyday work, and we go through some of our training again for the rodeo purposes. We also really focused on safety and efficiency while competing this year.”
Other teams took a similar approach to the competition, which is judged not only on speed but also skill. At Eversource, Jeff Sutherland says his team practiced once a week for two months. When they got to the rodeo grounds, their game plan was to execute safe climbs and finish cleanly on events. Similarly, Rodriguez says his journeyman team from LADWP focused on slowing down during the events to minimize deductions.
“We tried to concentrate on being methodical and clean rather than trying to go as fast as possible and be susceptible to errors,” he said.
Because Rodriguez and his team do not work in the same location back in Los Angeles, they came in a few days early to work together as a team and freshen up their hot sticking and hurt man rescue skills.
“I feel like our practice helped everything go fairly smoothly,” said Rodriguez, who also is the son of a lineman who competed in the same mystery event 10 years ago. “It was a great rodeo, and a great day.”
Spotlight on Safety
While the linemen were climbing poles, tossing ropes, changing insulators and using hot sticks, their families and friends were cheering for them on the sidelines. Also, 275 veteran linemen volunteered to serve as event, chief or master judges. Even with the large number of competitors, judges and spectators, the rodeo went off without a hitch, said Owen, who served as this year’s safety and first aid coordinator.
To protect participants from falls while climbing, many of the teams required their apprentices and journeymen to wear full fall protection. However, because the rodeo is an international event, the ILRA cannot mandate full fall protection, especially because the co-ops, MEAs, REAs, international utilities, California utilities and some of the government entities are not bound by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration to abide by the new fall arrest standard.
Some of these utilities have voluntarily gone to fall protection, noted Rodney Lewis II, a foreman for Portland General Electric and an ILRA board member. “At the awards banquet, it used to be equally split between fall arrest and not fall arrest,” he said. “Now, about 80% are wearing fall arrest while competing.”
Bobby Christmas of Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative says his utility required its two journeyman teams and two apprentices to wear fall protection. “It doesn’t slow us down at all and hasn’t been an issue at the rodeo,” Christmas said. “I grew up free climbing, and I know old habits are hard to change. Once our linemen started to climb with it, however, their confidence level started to climb, and they felt a lot more comfortable knowing that they couldn’t fall and hit the ground.”
To level the playing field, the ILRA requires all climbers — whether they are climbing freely or wearing harnesses — to stop at a certain point during the competition and perform a task. For example, during the pole climb, they must carry an egg in a canvas bucket, and, when they reach the top of the pole, they must place the egg in their mouth, hang up the bucket and then descend the pole.
Regardless of whether or not the competitors wear harnesses, they must keep safety top of mind. “No one wants to see anyone get hurt,” Lewis explained. “Here at the ILRA, our rodeo is all about safety. Some people have the misconception that it’s all about speed and going fast, but we put safety first. We preach that every day when we are at work and we do the same thing here at the International Lineman’s Rodeo.”
At the rodeo, the focus also is on camaraderie, Lewis says. “The event gives all of our sister and brother companies in construction the opportunity to come together in a family reunion-type atmosphere,” he said. “Because of that camaraderie, we can talk about new innovations and new ideas, and how we can promote safety in our industry.”
Editor’s note: Visit www.tdworld.com/electric-utility-operations to view photo galleries and videos from the 2015 International Lineman’s Rodeo competition.