The grit behind the grid
Take a behind-the-scenes look into the life of an Oklahoma lineworker
February 26 could have been a day like any other. A wintry setting perfect for reading a book or catching up on a forgotten show. Casual pursuits were put aside as the wind rapidly turned warm, the clouds gathered and the air felt thicker. Fury and power were on the horizon.
In western Oklahoma, Northfork Electric Cooperative (NFEC) lineworker Dakota Gilbert turned on the news. He saw Cheyenne, a small town in his Roger Mills County service area, positioned to take the brunt of the storm’s force.
As his family headed down to their home’s basement for shelter, Gilbert laced up his boots and grabbed his keys. His wife, Haley, asked if NFEC had called him to restore outages.
“I told her ‘no,’ but that I wanted to be ready if the storm knocked the power out,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert’s instinct was right. By the time he got to the co-op’s dispatch room, members were already reporting broken poles. Lineworkers were gathered and geared up, ready to face the conditions ahead.
An EF2-rated tornado had touched down, leaving behind injuries, damages and, devastatingly, a fatality. Gilbert and his crew moved out to resolve downed powerlines so emergency crews could get through the area safely.
“Your adrenaline is pumping,” Gilbert says. “All you can think about is, ‘We’ve got a job to do. We must make this safe.’”
Gilbert didn’t hang up his gear until 4 a.m. the next day. An average day in the life of a lineworker is anything but typical.
Safety first, safety always
It’s now four days later and the co-op has assembled for its monthly safety programming meeting. All NFEC employees are required to attend to hear the important content.
“Someone define communication for me,” Jason Brown, Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives’ (OAEC) safety instructor, says at the front of the room. A variety of answers float among the employees.
“Look to your front, your right and behind you,” Brown says. “Can you say the exact same things to those three people and each will understand what you are talking about?”
Today’s session is highlighting different levels of knowledge in the utility industry and the need to communicate the same idea in a variety of ways to ensure the message is received.
Heath Martin, NFEC safety director, coordinates the monthly meetings.
“Our biggest deal is communication,” Martin says. “We want ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ employees to all be on the same page.”
Martin knows firsthand the importance of safety. On August 18, 2001, he scaled a 35-foot electrical pole. He reached to move a wire out of his way and was met with 7,200 volts shooting through his body. He fell from the pole onto red shale rock on the ground. Doctors credit the fall for saving his life, believing the force revived his heart.
After his accident, Martin made safety a priority to ensure no one experiences what he did.
“My goal was never to be in the safety department,” Martin says. “The Lord led me here. I feel like this is my calling now to keep our employees returning to their families every night.”
Repetition within these meetings is key. Martin says hearing the same thing repeatedly isn’t a negative. If the topic is being talked about, Martin knows it’s going to be on the employees’ minds. Leaving out one step one time could cost a life.
Part of the goal is to also show the employees leadership supports them and what they need to get their jobs done safely. NFEC General Manager Brent Meador and at least one board director attend every safety meeting.
“I could call my general manager tonight and I know he would answer the phone,” Gilbert says. “There aren’t many other jobs that allow open communication with people higher up than you.”
Language of the line
Gilbert has had almost every job in the book, from construction to driving a truck. Before joining the co-op, he always felt he had a “job.” As a lineworker, he feels he has a “career.” Even though he has been in his career for 10 years, he still feels new when watching the more experienced crew members at work.
He understands it must be overwhelming for a 20-year-old to come in and see the crew on the job.
“I liken it to hearing someone speak a different language, you know?” Gilbert says. “It’s just so smooth and so fluid.”
Gilbert credits the seamless workflow to a strong, family-like culture at NFEC. He feels everyone is looking out for each other and the work goes beyond the paycheck. The friendships he has found at the co-op have been one of the greatest enrichments of his life.
Part of this continued success is also paying forward the excellent training Gilbert says he received in his early days. He says the key is to slow down and take the time to show each step the right way, no matter how big or small of a task at hand.
“I feel like every generation steps it up a notch to make it better for the next generation,” Gilbert says. “I have to train the next guy even better than I was trained, and that’s a responsibility I take seriously.”
Martin says Gilbert has recently been promoted from construction crew to area maintenance. Although he is glad to see this advancement, he notes Gilbert will be missed in his ability to train the new employees on his crew.
“Dakota shows the guys that you have to have integrity, whether someone is watching you or not,” Martin says.
The co-op invests in each employee through trainings, conferences and experiences. Gilbert has met lineworkers from across the state he can rely on, especially during large scale outages when mutual aid is enacted. Gilbert also had the opportunity to participate in the International Program, helping bring first-time electricity to a rural village in Guatemala.
He says the co-op puts a great amount of time and energy into each person, and it shows. For the first time in his life, he’s no longer “just a number,” and as much as he is valued as a person, he shows the same value to the co-op’s members.
“There are members on every line,” Gilbert says. “I can’t see myself doing anything else besides powering them.”
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