Thirty-four years ago, Kansas utilities competed in the first Lineman’s Rodeo. Fast-forward to today, and the event is nearly at its bursting point. A record number of journeymen teams and apprentices competed in this year’s International Lineman’s Rodeo, shattering records across the board. This year, 313 apprentices competed to be the "Best of the Best" in 2017 compared to 284 last year. Thirty more journeymen teams also competed this year over last year for a grand total of 238 three-member teams.
After back-to-back hurricanes inflicted widespread outages and destruction in Texas, Georgia and Florida, some of the International Lineman’s Rodeo Association (ILRA) board members anticipated some teams to back out of the competition. The linemen from the mutual aid crews and impacted states, however, wrapped up restoration just in time for the rodeo. "Thousands of line crews swarmed into Florida from top to bottom to restore service and went down to the Gulf Coast to make all the repairs," said Rick Childers, event coordinator for the International Lineman’s Rodeo.
Three of those linemen — Robert Padgett, Mike Hatcher and James Alexander — even formed their own rodeo team called Team Florida Mutual Aid after working many storms together. The trio of linemen do not even work at the same utility, but they forged a bond after many hours working side by side to restore service. "The industry has been good to me for 29 years, and it feels good to represent my state," Padgett said. "We didn’t get to prepare as much as we wanted to for the rodeo because of the hurricane, but we did a lot of climbing during the Irma restoration."
The wildfires in California also changed the travel plans for some of the competitors. For example, some of the rodeo teams were not able to fly out of the San Francisco and Oakland airports after they were shut down, and others were rerouted and stuck at airports in Chicago or Washington state. "Due to all the smoke, debris and ash in the air, the teams were on standby, and we finally got them out," Childers said. "At one point, about 20 or 30 guys were delayed. Some of them arrived in Kansas City at 2 o’clock in the morning."
Competing for Top Honors
Weather can cause challenges not only during storms before the rodeo, but also on the day of the competition. For the 2017 contest, rain clouds threatened the competition for most of the day but only showered the grounds for a short time.
Out of the record number of competitors, Cobb EMC earned the top spot in the journeyman division with a perfect score of 400 points, the fastest time and zero deductions, and Duke Energy won the title of Best of the Best in the apprentice division.
To reach the awards stage at the banquet, many journeyman teams and apprentices practiced for months to compete at the International Lineman’s Rodeo. Two events, however, were a complete surprise until the competitors arrived in Kansas City — the mystery events.
In the past, the ILRA included hot sticking into at least one of the mystery events; this year, the board focused on rubber gloving events instead. "The hot sticking events are slower, more meticulous, and intricate and harder to complete and judge," Childers said. "This year we did two rubber gloving events in the interest of speeding it up. We also want to keep them guessing and off balance, which is key to the competition."
When the team from Hawaiian Electric arrived at the rodeo, they fully expected to perform hot sticking, which they don’t do very often in Hawaii, said Jordon Hugo-Kamake. Instead, they learned that they were going to be using rubber goods during both mystery events. "We enjoy coming to the rodeo, because we get to see all of the new things for linemen," Hugo-Kamake said.
The journeymen linemen from Empire Electric District also didn’t know exactly what to expect during the mystery events, so Aaron Bittle said he and his teammates practiced a little bit of everything, including hot sticking. "We didn’t want to look like we were sword fighting while we were hot sticking," Bittle said. "We also tried to practice working together as a team. During the rodeo, everyone has a role."
During the journeyman events, the three-member teams — the groundman and two linemen on the pole — must work together as a team and focus on good communication, explained Brian Felix, journeyman lineman for Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L). Felix, whose team placed second in the journeyman division, said the rodeo is the only time of year he gets to see linemen from all over the country, and over the years, he’s learned tips and techniques to improve his team’s performance during the competition. "We’ve learned to work not only quickly, but also smoothly," said Felix, who has been competing at the rodeo since 2012.
Eric Clark, journeyman lineman for Empire Electric District, agreed, saying that just focusing on the speed during the competition is likely to lead to deductions. "There’s no point to going fast if you get points taken off," Clark said.
Mike Saunders, a retired journeyman lineman whose son-in-law works for Kansas City Power & Light, competed in the rodeo for 24 out of his 33 years in the line trade. In his experience, he says the journeymen teams must strive to get no deductions to place in the events. "The linemen are competing to be the best of the best, and it’s all about pride," said Saunders, who brought his granddaughter to the rodeo to watch her dad compete. "Only about 25 of the teams will get a perfect score, and if you get even a two-point deduction, you’re done."
Case in point: the journeyman team from Portland General Electric won the first mystery event, called the "A.B. Chance Event," with a perfect score of 100 points and a time of 8 minutes, 38 seconds out of the total of 25 minutes allotted for the event.
During this simulated energized 4-kV event, the teams had a maximum of 25 minutes to install and remove Preformed Line Products splice shunts on a 40-ft wood pole. First, the groundman had up to three attempts to throw the P-Line over the secondary conductor and secure it to the ground anchor. Next, the two linemen ascended the pole and removed and installed the shunts after covering the primary conductors with A.B. Chance line guards and hoods. When the event was completed, the team placed all their materials and tools on the mat or they faced a deduction. They were also judged on safe and proper work practices and housekeeping.
Duke Energy won the second journeyman mystery event, also with a perfect score, by replacing a Brooks braceless cross-arm using a temporary Hastings fiberglass crossarm. As with the first mystery event, the 4-kV rubber glove event required the use of rubber gloves, blankets, line guards and other materials.
Before the event started, the teams were supplied with two steel pins and insulators, two prefab tie wires and grommets, four Hastings hard covers, a crossarm guard and split blanket, a ring tool and other materials. Because the competitors were working in a simulated energized situation, the linemen had to cover all phases within reach or fall distance, except where the conductor was gloved.
In addition to the mystery events, the journeymen linemen also had to compete in the traditional pole climb and hurt man rescue events. Pacific Gas & Electric nabbed the top two spots in the journeyman pole climb and also won the hurt man rescue event, in which competitors must rescue a life-sized man, who has been injured while working at a transformer station, using a Buckingham SuperSqueeze and Ox Block handline.
For the pole climb, the journeymen linemen had to climb a pole with a raw egg in a bucket. Then the lineman safetied off, set back in the safety from the pole, removed the old bucket, dropped it to the ground, placed the egg in his or her mouth, hung the new bucket on the hook, and descended the pole.
To ensure the safety of the competitors, the ILRA did not allow any free fall, or "hot-dogging," and required that the linemen were in control at all times. If a competitor cut out or slipped on the pole with one gaff out, he or she earned a two-point deduction, and if both gaffs were out of the pole, the deduction climbed to 10 points. In addition, if the journeyman lineman cracked the egg, he or she also received a 10-point deduction.
Putting Apprentices to the Test
Like the journeymen, the apprentices also had to compete in the hurt man rescue, pole climb, and two mystery events, but rather than working in teams of three, they competed individually.
The apprentices also had to complete a written test the day before the rodeo. In past years, the apprentices had to take their written test on the day of the rodeo, but the schedule change has worked out well, said Rodney Lewis, repair field supervisor for Portland General Electric and board member of the ILRA. "By moving the apprentice testing to Friday, it has sped up that portion of it, and it makes it fair and equal for everyone," Lewis said.
Brian Minikel, apprentice for Duke Energy, earned the least deductions and the fastest time for not only the written test, but also all of the events, landing him at the top of the apprentice division. He said that while he worked hard for the competition, he couldn’t have earned the Best of the Best award on his own. "Being a lineman is truly a brotherhood, and you look out for each other," said Minikel, who is from Cary, North Carolina. "Everyone wants you to succeed, and I had a lot of support behind me. The award is a tremendous blessing in my life."
Kaleb Chapman, apprentice for Jackson Electric Membership Corp., was also a big winner at the rodeo, with first place finishes in the pole climb, hurt man rescue and second mystery event. For the second mystery event, the apprentices had up to 20 minutes to change out a damaged PLP vise grip insulator using leather gloves.
The apprentices also had to compete in another mystery event, which was won by Portland General Electric’s Guy Elliott. In this event, the linemen had to rig a set of two Klein sheave slack blocks without crossing the rope between the two blocks, and successfully tie a crown knot and square knot. If they were not successful at knot tying, they earned a two-point deduction. They also could lose points for not finishing the event on time, making improper tucks, crossing the ropes or not keeping a clean work area.
Supporting the Competitors
The International Lineman’s Rodeo gave the competitors the opportunity to compete for awards and to showcase their skills in front of their loved ones. For many families, this annual event is the only opportunity for children to be able to watch their parent work in a safe and controlled environment, Childers says.
"In the line trade, there’s no ‘Take Your Child to Work Day,’" Childers said. "At the rodeo, the kids have a chance to ride up in a bucket truck and see what their mommy or daddy does for a living, with everything roped off and de-energized."
For example, seven-year-old Mason Wallin cheered on the Duke Energy team from the sidelines wearing a hard hat, leather gloves and a custom belt with line hooks. As his father, Brian, and his transmission crew from Asheville, North Carolina, competed in an event, more than 200 other journeymen teams were engaged in competition or waiting on the sidelines.
The linemen’s families and their "line families" of coworkers supported the competitors throughout the day-long event. For example, the number of company tents at the top of the hill, called Platinum Row, has expanded exponentially, Lewis said. In addition, he said the number of outdoor exhibitors and sponsors at the rodeo has also increased.
For example, Buckingham Manufacturing awards the top winners with custom championship belts, and many other vendors donate supplies for the events. "Without our vendors helping us, we couldn’t put on the rodeo," Lewis said. "They donate so much material, equipment and time. We appreciate them to the nth degree. It’s a collaborative effort, and they support us tremendously."
As the ILRA board prepares for its 35th anniversary next year, the board strives to continue to provide a safe and competitive environment for linemen across North America and beyond. "This is the biggest rodeo we have ever had, and at some point, we may run out of space," said Childers, who will soon retire from the line trade and step down from the ILRA board. "But that’s a good problem to have."
Because the rodeo can’t continue to grow indefinitely, the board is considering a few options including capping the number of competitors or scheduling the competition for two different days, Childers says. Whatever the board decides, however, they will strive to make the competition fair, equal and fun for all, Lewis said.
"We are like family, and when we have our rodeo, it’s like a family reunion," Lewis said. ♦