There are times when Tucson Electric Power’s Director of Line Construction David Wagner wonders if TEP’s troublemen sleep with their steel-toed boots on.
Troublemen are TEP’s first responders – en route within 15 minutes of a 911 call. So when the call came in the wee hours one Friday morning, Troubleman Team Lead Chris Dunnigan wasted no time getting to the scene. In this case, a car had run off a slick road in a storm and hit a tree near East Broadway and Alvernon Way. A thick branch rested heavily on a power line, causing an outage and threatening to pull over the whole pole.
At the same time across town, Troubleman Dustin Christmas received a 2:48 a.m. call at his Northwest home from TEP’s system control room. In addition to responding to 911 calls, troublemen are summoned to identify problems, secure the scene and then either make repairs or call in crews for more complicated jobs. On this morning, there were some intermittent outages near North Park Avenue and East Grant Road that needed some detective work.
While the system control team sifted through clues to help identify the problem, Christmas made a quick stop on the way to that scene to help Dunnigan remove the tree limb and free the line.
Moments later, the two were headed back to Park and Grant. In the dark and the rain, the two drove along the path of power lines that feed the substation, shining the truck lights overhead and looking for anything amiss. And there it was, so subtle it would be invisible to anyone without extensive training: a small section of 8,000-volt wire had become detached, causing a short circuit.
With the help of a temporary insulating hose, the two tied the line back up, as a third troubleman, Dale Erickson, went to the substation to restore power. The temporary fix would hold until line crews could mobilize to complete a more permanent repair.
Elapsed time from Christmas receiving the call: 88 minutes. Customers back in power: 1,676.
“We may be first on the scene, but it takes everybody working as a team,” said Christmas, who joined TEP in 1998 and works closely with System Operators, Line Construction Crews & Leadership, and other troublemen. “Everyone wants to keep the lights on and get power back up as soon as possible.”
It’s a long journey to become a troubleman. Candidates serve as a pre-apprentice for a year or two. They can become a journeyman lineman through a four-year apprenticeship program, but it can take another five to 10 years to reach full mastery. They also must pass a written test and a panel interview.
TEP staffs additional troublemen in the summer as the load on the system increases because of the heat and in preparation for monsoon season.
Dunnigan said that while he may find himself soaked to his boots, standing in a bucket truck fixing a line in a storm or broiling under the sun, the work is rewarding. “There’s a satisfaction that comes with this work. It just feels good to find creative solutions to put people back in power – and to do it safely and mindfully,” said Dunnigan, a 38-year veteran of TEP. “It’s our job and our responsibility and we take it seriously. Plus, after you do something enough times, you also get some satisfaction in passing knowledge along to others who are coming up behind you.”
That job was the second that week in which Christmas made some speedy repairs, this time with the help of a nearby line crew and an additional troubleman, Gary Sanford.
An anchor that holds tension in the pole and keeps it upright gave way, causing an outage near Silverlake and Kino. A permanent fix would require a detailed look to determine whether any underground utilities might be disrupted by the repairs, so the crew came up with a creative interim solution to get people back in power right away: Attach the stabilizing tension cable to the truck and inch it forward until the pole was once again upright. That allowed power to be restored while the area was blue staked and more permanent repairs could proceed.
Time to solution: 60 minutes. Customers back in power: 2,848.
“The commitment, the skill and the creativity of this team impress me every day,” Wagner said. “When there’s a problem, they’re right there helping to identify a solution. They play a critical role in our ability to meet our customers’ expectation for reliable power.”