Entergy's employees assisted a customer using an airboat following a flood.

Tales of Troublemen

Sept. 9, 2020
Meet six journeymen linemen who serve as first responders to emergencies and accidents in their service territories.

Fifty-three-year-old Scott Walsh of Ameren Illinois was born with a nose for trouble. As the son of a troubleman, he says his first priority is safety and serving as his company’s protector.

“Troublemen safeguard the public, first responders and your linemen brothers and sisters,” Walsh said. “We are the lifeguards.”

Due to the nature of the job, journeymen linemen are often accustomed to middle-of-the-night outages and severe working conditions. A select group of linemen, however, encounter a diverse set of challenges as troublemen for utilities nationwide. Unlike other linemen, they often work alone rather than on a crew, and they are the first to arrive on the scene of car-pole accidents, fires and other emergencies.

The following are six troublemen — from Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Arizona and California — who have made it their life’s work to diagnose electrical issues and safeguard their communities.

Hometown Hero

As the son of an Arkansas Power & Light lineman and meter reader, Brad Reddin grew up around the line trade. Thirty-five years later, Reddin works as a serviceman for Entergy in his hometown of Danville, Arkansas. As a serviceman, he works alongside his partner to handle trouble calls in the county.

“We do whatever we have to do to get the lights back on,” Reddin says. “We are the first ones to roll in, and our weekends, nights and days are consumed all the time with calls. If anything happens, we go.”

For example, Reddin responds to house fires to make the scene safe for firefighters, car-pole accidents and of course, storms. He said linemen are like the “forgotten first responders.”

“I’ve seen everything from car wrecks to mountains on fire,” Reddin said. “You have to do what you can to help people, but it’s not always possible to save them. Sometimes they don’t always make it.”

In some cases, however, he is able to play a part in an emergency rescue. For example, following a flash flood in Arkansas, one of the highways was completely washed out, and the floodwater reached near a farmer’s hog farm. In response, he and a coworker boarded an airboat to monitor the power lines, make sure everything was safe and rescue as many animals as possible.

“We got as many out as we could,” Reddin said. “We saved livestock and also deer that had no place to go, but we couldn’t save all of them — there were too many. Deer were trying to swim, and many of them couldn’t make it. The flooding ruined hog houses and wheat and corn fields.”

With his airboat, Reddin was able to help one farmer, however, by navigating through the floodwater and unlocking another side gate. That way, the farmer’s cows could climb to a higher ground rather than drowning due to the rising floodwater.

After living in Arkansas for 56 years, Reddin was not only helping Entergy customers, he was also assisting friends and neighbors following the flood.

“I know the cops and patrol officers—I know just about everyone,” he said.

While talking to some of the local law enforcement, he learned of a 93-year-old man who was stranded by the flood with no cell phone and in dire need of rescue. Without hesitation, he and Shawn Morris, line supervisor for Entergy Arkansas, boarded their airboat.

“After he drove down the mountain, the floodwater came up behind him, and he had nowhere to go and got stuck,” Reddin says. “When we picked him up, he was starting to get tired, dehydrated and nervous. It almost gave me a tear in my eye to see him with his old Army Veteran cap on.”

A farmer had tried to rescue the man with his tractor, but he could only get so far before he had to stop. With the airboat, however, Reddin, Morris and a pilot were able to get him to safe land, where the sheriff’s deputy and emergency medical personnel were waiting.

Reddin said it was a good and humbling feeling to help with the emergency rescue. During his time as a serviceman, he has also done other “little” things to help out his fellow community. For example, while in North Carolina, he gave his lunches to children who didn’t have anything to eat. He also assisted customers following snow and ice storms.

“I can’t imagine anyone not doing it,” Reddin said. “It’s good to know that I’m working for a company that encourages you to take care of people. When you help them out, you don’t know which company they get their electricity from, and you don’t care. They are part of the human race, and that’s what we should all be doing.” 

Florida First Responder

Line work became a second career for Ken Coleman, a troubleman for Duke Energy at the Winter Garden Operations Center in Orlando, Florida. The 47-year-old journeyman lineman is approaching his 15th year in the industry.

“I worked in a mental hospital for 10 years prior to joining Progress Energy, which became the Duke Energy family, so working with high voltage at soaring heights seemed a logical transition,” he joked.

His true inspiration for moving into the line trade was his brother, John, who was a lineman apprentice at the time.

“I envied his work satisfaction and the excitement he had about his career,” said Coleman, who was born in South Carolina but has lived in Florida most of his life. “Honestly, his ability to afford a much nicer motorcycle than mine at the time may have played a hand in my decision to come onboard as well.”

During his apprenticeship, he worked at the different Orlando area operations centers. He then topped out as a journeyman lineman in southeast Orlando, where he worked until an opportunity to work as a troubleman opened up five years ago at the Winter Garden Operations Center.

“It has always been my goal to become a first responder, so when a local job opened up, I jumped at it,” said Coleman, who now lives 20 minutes from his operations center in Ocoee, Florida. “I don’t recall if this job was won in a solo bidding war with myself or if it was a dusty old position sitting on the shelf of unfilled opportunities, but I was appointed it, and here I am.”

Since 2015, he says he can’t count the number of wild and memorable emergency situations he has been a first responder on. One in particular, however, is still fresh in his memory — a car vs. pole report.

“I arrived to find an elderly couple in a heated argument,” he said. “They were still in their vehicle, which was perched partially in a tree about 6 ft up a set of distribution down guy wires.”

Both were unharmed and extracted without incident, but the incident taught him a valuable life lesson.

“Based on their bickering, it appeared there was a dispute about which way to turn at the intersection,” Coleman recalled. “The driver split the difference, jumped the curb, rode the guy wire into the tree and split the dead-end pole in the process. Now every time I drive past the new pole, I smile and laugh while committing myself to take decisive action in life and in traffic. Sometimes taking the path up the middle will put you up a tree.”

Other times, however, the victims of a car-pole accident or emergency may not survive. He says he’s very strategic about the darker side of his job.

“Morbid entertainment and intrigue isn’t my thing,” he said. “When I arrive on scenes where there’s human carnage or loss of life, I stick to the task at hand, focus on my purpose for being there and proceed to execute my job safely. My motto is to arrive, assess, execute, verify and exit. Don’t try to see anything you may not be able to forget and don’t want to remember.”

While he can’t control what he’ll encounter on the scene of an accident, he said he enjoys the satisfaction of serving as a first responder. In this role, he can not only assist customers, but also make the scene of the accident safe for police officers and firefighters.

“Access to electrical service has become fundamental to the modern living experience, and most people take that fact for granted until their power is out,” he says. “When I show up to restore service, my job satisfaction mirrors the customer’s excitement to see me there. It’s a really good feeling.”

The favorite part of his job involves troubleshooting for outage restoration.

“It’s like treasure hunting,” Coleman said. “You use your map of training and experience to follow clues the grid is giving you while you run down the cause of the interruptions. Then when safe and appropriate, you get to collect the bounty of getting the lights back on shortly thereafter.”

At Duke Energy, most of the local troublemen work assigned portions of their operations center grids. Coleman, however, enjoys traveling and working entirely on the late shift. He mostly works alone, but when necessitated by safety or process, he partners with line crews or other lone workers to get work done safely and efficiently.

“Most of the communication between myself, crews and my counterparts happens via dispatch radio or by phone when it’s related to what’s going on at the moment. Outside of that, we see and exchange information at the operations center and in the field, during company meetings and through emails and texts. I never feel disconnected.”

Coleman, who strives to join the leadership team one day, said he has learned many strategies during his past five years as a troubleman.

“Early on as a troubleman, I felt as if I needed to do it all alone—never asking for help or getting crews involved only when rules demanded,” he said. “Now after some years in this seat, I understand the fine tuning achieved by getting the right resources engaged in a timely manner. I also don’t expose myself to risks or conditions alone that I won’t be able to get out of by myself.” 

Troubleman Tradition

Troubleman Scott Walsh of Ameren Illinois hails from a large family of linemen. His father, Marty, and father-in-law, Bob Rothe, are both retired from the trade, and his brother, children, cousins and a nephew are all in line work.

“I was born in Jerseyville, Illinois, as a Central Illinois Public Service Company (now Ameren Illinois) brat, meaning my father was a lineman for the company,” he said “As he took different jobs within the company, we moved around Illinois a lot.”

After college, he tried a few different jobs, but line work eventually called to him, and he landed a job with Union Electric Company, now known as St. Louis-based Ameren Missouri. After learning the trade, he transferred back to Illinois, where he works as an evening shift troubleman for Ameren Illinois in Alton, Illinois.

“I followed in my father, Marty Walsh's footsteps and presently have the same job he had when he retired,” he says. “The great thing about following in my father's footsteps is it gives me a library of knowledge just a phone call away if I get stumped. It also has its downside because he will call wanting timelines for restoration because the casino or one of his friends lost power.”

Walsh first became interested in line work and trouble work growing up in the 1970s. His father worked as a troubleman in Havana, Illinois, and he vividly remembers riding along on callouts with him.

“We wouldn’t do this now because of our Ameren Illinois safety protocols, but the ‘70s were different times,” he said. “One night on a call, as I stood on the ground holding the flashlight, my father went up to re-energize a small community south of town that had lost power. As he attempted to tap the hot line clamp jumper with his shotgun, he missed the stirrup and a huge electrical arc lit up the night sky.  It was the first time I saw electricity. From that time on, I thought my father controlled lightning. He was, and still is to this day, my hero.”

In the mid 1990s, he topped out as a journeyman lineman in north St. Louis, and he now has nearly 30 years of experience across five different companies part of the Ameren family. He discovered his love for trouble work due to inspiration from Jim Slater, one of his lineman role models. He and Slater both became troublemen at the same time through seniority, elevating from the position of line crew leader. For the last decade he has worked as a troubleman, he has had his share of memorable experiences.

“One time, a customer used his lawnmower to push a live primary wire out of his yard so he could finish mowing,” he recalled.

His most unforgettable incident, however, was when he rescued a little girl’s cat from the top of a power pole. While firemen usually get credit for these rescues, it’s often the linemen who are the saviors.

“That cat looked very sweet and cuddly from the ground, but as I approached it took on a look of annoyance,” he said. “When I reached out and plucked the cat from the pole top, I entered into the fight of my life. Bitten and badly clawed, I had to bite my tongue, which is hard for a lineman, because there was a crowd on the ground.”

Once he descended the pole, he tried to hand the mean cat over to the little girl, but it jumped out of his hand and ran off—showing no gratitude, he said.  Today, he employs a different strategy.

“I just make sure the bushings have good covers and tell the customer that the safest approach for all is to give the cat a night,” he says. “I have been pretty successful with that approach.”

For him, the most difficult part of the job isn’t the chaos, broken poles or wire burning situations, under which he thrives, he says. Instead, he says the most challenging times are when he has to interact with customers who are struggling financially.

“Our company is very generous and shutting off power is always a last resort,” he said. “I advise young troublemen to be understanding and to try to remember that some people may be having a hard time.”

One of the most rewarding parts of trouble work and line work is “bringing back the light.”

“During storms, disasters or just simple outages, having light is very comforting to people,” he said. “Having electricity for lights, air conditioning and heat is very comforting to people and brings back a little normalcy during dark times. There’s something very special about being a part of that.”

Unlike serving on a line crew on the construction side, troublemen must heavily focus on the customers, which requires a friendly and patient personality.

“If I am not changing a buggy streetlight, then I am probably interacting with a customer,” he said. “Sometimes it’s like being a detective by listening and trying to interpret their electrical issues. Flickers, blinks, relays and surges have different meanings to people who are not familiar with electricity. You have to choose your questions carefully so the customer doesn't send you on a wild goose chase.”

For example, rarely does he get through a day when he doesn’t teach a new renter or homeowner how to reset a tripped breaker when they think the power company is the source of the outage.

“You have to be very patient sometimes,” he said.

In reality, everyday trouble work can also get tedious, he said.

“I think most troublemen live for the wire-down emergency-type trouble calls,” he said. “They become addictive. You have to slow down because you are not a fireman.”

On most days, because they are called out for electrical trouble issues, they may also tend to find mistakes such as a loose or overtightened connector that is causing the lights to flicker or a load imbalance causing a fuse to melt down.

“You will also develop a love-hate opinion of squirrels,” he added.

One benefit of working as a troubleman, however, is not having to share a truck.

“I have my own truck, and his name is Trigger,” he said.

He also gets to work on his own as an evening troubleman in Alton, llinois, in the Metro East St. Louis area. Occasionally, he may call for help or assist a repair crew if needed.

“Mostly, I tend to work by myself, and I like it that way because I win all of the arguments,” he said.

Walsh married the daughter of a troubleman, and he and Becky have six kids and seven grandchildren. He said she is a true “life wife.”

“She knows when the phone rings on Christmas or Thanksgiving Day, I have a job to do,” she said. “She also sacrifices. Trouble does not care about holidays.”

If trouble work goes south, I will go tramping with my IBEW family members, but trouble is what I enjoy,” he said.

Troubleshooting: Adventure Not a Job

Born in San Diego, California, and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Henry Hansen has worked in the line trade for 36 years. The U.S. Army veteran began working at Salt River Project (SRP) as an auto utility man in 1983, but knew he always wanted to work with electricity.

One day, his auto shop foreman asked him about his plans at SRP and encouraged him to apply for the lineman apprenticeship program. He topped out as a journeyman in 1988, and after working as a lineman for nine years, he became a working foreman, running a three-man crew for three-and-a-half years. At that point in his career, he was ready for a change. Fortunately, one of his friends from his apprenticeship program called him one night to tell him about an open job in troubleshooting at SRP.

“He became a troubleshooter a few years after we topped out,” Hansen said. “He told me to seriously consider applying for the open job because he thought I would like it.”

A few months later, the opening came up on the bid sheet, and Hansen applied, interviewed and was accepted in 2001. For the last 19 years, he has worked as a troubleshooter.

“For me, it is the best job for a lineman or line crew foreman,” he says. “It is challenging at times, and it always keeps you thinking and on your toes.”

Case in point: about 12 years ago on a Sunday afternoon, he received a radio call that a pole was down in a customer’s yard. He arrived to find police cars and fire trucks in the street and a small group of neighbors gathered in front of the home.

“The pole butt had rotted, and a single-phase transformer pole had fallen over on to a kid’s swingset,” Hansen recalled. “I was looking at the pole and transformer and tracing out the wire that was down, when I saw the #2 primary was burnt in two about 10 ft from the pole.”

After further investigation, he discovered the line was laying across a chain link fence the up to the corner of a house then down across a SUV parked in the driveway. Next, the line was draped on the top of trees in the front yard. After walking out in the street to see where the line was tapped off of the main, he saw that it was still attached.

“I called Bob, the system operator, from my handheld radio, and I asked if the circuit was hot, and he informed me that it was,” he said. “I glanced over to my right to see a fireman walking through the open gate on the chain link fence. I told Bob, ‘I need the circuit dropped now.”

The dispatcher, who worked in the field and fault locating before becoming a system operator, didn’t hesitate. As a result, no one got hurt despite the pole falling on the swingset and the fireman walking through the open gate. Also, no bystanders touched the energized fence while the circuit was closed.

“It just goes to show you that you never know about electricity,” he said.

To keep going from one day to the next, Hansen stays focused on the job and tries not to think about the car wrapped around the pole or the truck sitting on top of an underground primary gang switch.

“When I get there, I assess the situation, ensure public safety, isolate the problem and get as many customers as I can back on safely,” he said. “All of this is done in coordination with the dispatcher.”

When he gets a trouble call, his first priority is to arrive safely at the scene. While his troubleshooter truck has strobes and flashers, the traffic doesn’t respond to his vehicle like they do for police and fire responders.

“I am not in a rush to get to the problem because it will still be waiting for me when I get there,” he said. “While in route, your mind is running through what you think you will find, and eight times out of 10, it’s not what you thought. Don’t rush—get there safely.”

Each line division has troubleshooters assigned to the area, and they must live within 20 miles of their designated line division. The troubleshooters take their trucks home and sign on and off from home for better customer response. SRP has 34 troubleshooters who cover SRP’s service territory of 2,900 square miles with just more than one million customers. About 90 to 95% of the time, Hansen works by himself, and the other 5 to 10%, he works with another troubleshooter.

“Coming from a line crew and then working by yourself takes a little getting used to,” Hansen said. “However, now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And when you need help on an order, another troubleshooter is just a radio or a phone call away.”

Hansen, who plans to retire within the next year-and-a-half, says he enjoys helping customers with electrical problems.

“For linemen who are thinking about becoming a troubleshooter, the only thing I can say, to take a saying from a military commercial ad, is that it’s not a job — it’s an adventure.”

On the Move in Maryland

Philadephia-born Conrad Myers started off his career as an electrician. During a layoff period, he decided to look for a reliable job, and the rest is history.

For the last 29.5 years, he has worked in the line trade at Potomac Edison in Maryland. Since his utility first launched a trouble department five years ago, he has served as a line troubleshooter. He was first attracted to the position because he could work from home and have his own truck.

“There is a lot of variety as a troubleshooter,” Myers said. “I am constantly on the move. I’m not stuck on one job all day, and I don’t have to work in gloves and sleeves all day, every day in the heat.”

Potomac Edison has troubleshooters assigned to certain regions, and oftentimes, he enjoys working on his own. At times, he must work on a crew depending on the work or need, and he likes that as well.

“When working alone, I talk to my supervisor almost every day,” he said. “If I get a trouble call that requires a line crew, I talk to them to let them know what to expect. I also need to stop in at the shop periodically to stock my truck and attend meetings and see my coworkers then sometimes. Other than that, I talk to myself.”

One of his favorite parts of his job is helping the elderly. More often than not, the customers are happy to see him and the other troubleshooters and are appreciative of their efforts to restore power.

The job also has a darker side, and as such, he said it takes some prayer when responding to certain accidents and emergencies as a first responder.

“I must have a short memory to a certain degree,” he said. “I encourage newer employees to be aware of their surroundings so they can keep themselves out of tough situations and to follow the safety rules.”

For example, about a year ago, he responded to a house fire. When he arrived to disconnect the service, he walked to the rear of house to see a firefighter.

“I looked in the window and saw what looked like a person,” Myers said. “The firefighter confirmed the resident didn’t make it out of the fire.”

After spending a few years in his position, he has learned to take fewer things for granted and maintain communication with line workers.

“There is constant change in the industry and the workforce, and it’s important to stay abreast of the current work practices,” he said. “Strategies for success include working safely, following safety rules, being aware of your surroundings and having good communication.”

California Call Outs

A decade after joining Southern California Edison (SCE), Journeyman Lineman Gerad Coburn now specializes as a troubleman in San Joaquin, California. He was first exposed to the position during a four-week ride along with another troubleman at his company.

“Seeing the different knowledge and scenarios that troublemen use on a daily basis was very interesting to me as I like to solve problems,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity to use and refine your knowledge that you gained in the apprenticeship to apply it to your daily electric issues.”

At SCE, troublemen are responsible for circuit reliability, circuit continuity, troubleshooting circuit and customer problems and response to emergency calls including car hit poles, wire down, fires and circuit lockouts. He embraced the opportunity to apply as a troubleman/first responder at his utility so he could apply different skills than on the construction side.

“It is a great position that has its pluses and minuses like all careers,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s very rewarding when you can say you have assisted customers with issues and have been a part of upgrading and maintaining the grid.”

In his current position, no work day is the same.

“Every day has its own challenges, which is one of the reasons this job was so enticing to me,” he said. “Three months ago, it was rain and lightning. This week it’s heat waves, underground faults, ag pumps starting to pump water and equipment failing due to loading. Every season brings different sets of issues and focuses due to weather, agriculture and upgrading the grid.”

Troublemen must make direct customer contact in certain situations. For example, if an overhead transformer fails, he has to respond to a no-lights call and look for obvious signs of failure.

“Sometimes the transformers just fail, and that’s hard to explain to the customers that they will be out of power until the crews can replace it,” he said. “On the flip side, it’s very rewarding when you can repair or replace the equipment or fix a circuit issue and then drive away with the lights on for the customers.”

One of his most memorable moments was responding to a car-hit-pole accident with wires down in a busy area.

“When I got the call, luckily, I was only 15 minutes away,” he said. “When I arrived, the car had hit a line and buck riser pole with 350 ug potheads. The car was on fire, and the police, EMTs and fire department were all there.”

Instead of rushing to judgment, he remembered his training — assess the scene and clear trouble. For example, he noticed that all the lights were still on, and he discovered the primary was still hot after finding taps to open the voltage. If he had missed this clue and opened the tap at 280 A, he could have been hit with a potential ball of fire. All of the switches were either broken or welded shut, and one remote control switch had caught on fire. He opted to call the switching center to open the circuit breaker at a nearby substation to clear the trouble.

“This was a great learning experience for me in many different aspects,” he said. “When a car is on fire with someone inside, you can put a lot of pressure on yourself, which can detour your judgement to stay safe. I learned to always trust my tools, doublecheck the maps and communicate with the substation.”

He said he enjoys helping customers in their time of need.

“It’s a very rewarding and prideful feeling assisting customers from a circuit down issue down to a bad outlet in the house,” he said. “Troublemen can move circuits around, isolate circuits and pick up or energize loads in an emergency. It’s a silent game of how fast I can safely get as much load up as possible in an emergency situation.” 

As a troubleman for SCE, he is responsible for covering emergency and customer calls for one of the utility’s six areas. After a normal work shift, two troublemen will continue to work a 24-hour coverage until the next work day. While they normally work alone, some jobs require two workers to be on the job.

“I enjoy the opportunity to work alone providing a service to customers,” he said. “I have the option to make a phone call, and my coworkers are always willing to assist whenever possible.”

He enjoys working as a troubleman because in worst-case scenarios, he can troubleshoot problems and solve customer or circuit issues. At the same time, however, he says he misses the construction side of the company.

“When you drive by a job you completed, you can show your kids that you built that,” he says. “As a troubleman, I can show them a pole hit by a car. The troubleman position allows you to make repairs and replace wire — it’s basically up to your discretion and time constraints. I believe both sides are equally important and with a great relationship, both sides can get work done in a safe and productive manner.”

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