LINEMEN PUT THEIR LIVES ON THE LINE TO KEEP POWER ON FOR THEIR CUSTOMERS
While they're scaling poles in the worst weather Mother Nature can throw at them, their families are often home worrying about their safety. For one day out of each year, however, linemen can show off their skills in front of their families, friends and coworkers at the International Lineman's Rodeo.
The linemen's pride, camaraderie and family support have kept Dale Warman, the rodeo co-chairman and a retired director of field operations for Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L; Kansas City, Missouri), coming back to help with the rodeo for the last 25 years.
“When you see all the linemen come out with their spouses and their children, and you see the excitement that they have, you know you have done a good thing,” says Warman, who retired from KCP&L after 44 years.
Warman and other volunteers have helped to grow the rodeo from a four-hour event in Manhattan, Kansas, to a four-day extravaganza, complete with an exposition, safety conference, barbecue, fireworks display and hands-on competition. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the rodeo first began as the Kansas Lineman's Rodeo with approximately 30 competitors. Last year, 217 teams and 690 linemen competed in the rodeo.
Charlie Young, a supervisor for Southwest Line Construction (Lawrence, Kansas) and one of the founders of the rodeo, can't believe how far the competition has come since its humble beginnings in Manhattan.
“For our first event, we had 30 competitors and that might be stretching it,” Young recalls of the rodeo. “It just started growing and has been getting bigger and better every year. It's just unbelievable.”
Young says he's looking forward to the 25th anniversary of the rodeo on Sept. 13 at the Agricultural Hall of Fame grounds in Bonner Springs, Kansas. KCP&L and Westar Energy (Topeka, Kansas) will serve as the host utilities for the 2008 event, which will feature a variety of special attractions.
“It should be very exciting,” says Dan Fuller, a field construction supervisor for KCP&L, who competed in the 2007 rodeo along with Mike Saunders, KCP&L supervisor of technical training, and Martin Putnam, a KCP&L field construction superintendent. “I'm glad to see the contest continue to grow.”
While the rodeo now attracts utilities from around the world, the very first event had three participating utilities: Western Resources of Wichita, Kansas, KCP&L and Kansas Power and Light (KPL) of Topeka. Just before the rodeo, a storm ravaged Wichita, and many of the teams had to drop out of the competition.
While the inaugural event was low-key, the concept of the Lineman's Rodeo jumped out, Warman says. From the very beginning, the rodeo was designed as a way for linemen to show off their skills to their friends and families in the same vein as a cowboy rodeo. Tom White, who was working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 304 in Topeka, had the idea of a rodeo for linemen and founded the event. KPL and the Manhattan Area Vocational-Technical School got on board for the first Kansas Lineman's Rodeo.
Warman was a big fan of the rodeo. After a year or two, he suggested moving the rodeo to Kansas City — where it could be held at the KCP&L training field — and changing the name to Kansas-Missouri Lineman's Rodeo, which later became the International Lineman's Rodeo.
Linemen are now competing in local and regional rodeos nationwide, which has raised the bar of competition, says Jim Hamilton, a MidAmerican Energy senior line crew foreman in Des Moines, Iowa, and a chief judge for the rodeo.
“It stimulates a lot of interest in the program,” Hamilton says. “The best of the best come here now.”
Linemen not only come to the rodeo to see the top performers in their field, but they also make the trip to Kansas City to catch up with old friends and make new ones. The rodeo brings linemen together from all over the world, so they can network and broaden their circle of contacts, KCP&L's Fuller says.
“A lot of times, when you go help out with a storm, you see companies that you have competed against in the rodeo,” he says. “You recognize the guys, and they're happy to see you.”
Even though the linemen compete against each other on the day of the rodeo, there's a sense of family, community and camaraderie on the day of the event, Warman says. He's seen some linemen share their tools with fellow competitors and give advice.
“Even though they're competing against each other, you see the camaraderie of the line trade coming through,” Warman observes. “The linemen are very proud of their trade, and they're very happy to show what they can do.”
Linemen are especially proud to show off their skills to their families and friends who often watch them compete from down below. As the judges walk through the grounds and rate the competitors, the linemen's families are often close by, cheering on their loved ones, snapping photos and videotaping the event.
Roseanne Jones, whose husband has worked for CenterPoint Energy in Houston, Texas, for the last 11 years and competed as a groundman in the 2007 event, says it was exciting to see what kind of work her husband does on a day-to-day basis.
“It makes me nervous that every day he keeps lives in his hands to keep the power on, but I'm confident in his skills,” she says.
For many linemen's families, the rodeo is the one trip they take all year. For example, Danya Longnecker traveled from Abilene, Kansas, to Bonner Springs with her seven children, sister and parents to watch her husband compete. Her husband has spent the last 14 years as a journeyman lineman for Westar Energy in Salina, Kansas.
“It's fun to come out with friends and meet other linemen,” says Longnecker, who says that her children are very proud of their father and love watching him compete.
From the very beginning of the rodeo, the competition has been designed as a family event, Warman says. Linemen's children can ride on trains, get their faces painted, see a fire truck or ambulance, enjoy hay rides, visit the petting zoo or walk through a one-room schoolhouse.
“We spend as much time on the families as on the events to make sure the family has something to do while their family member is competing,” says Warman, who says the rodeo will feature an army helicopter this year.
As family members and friends sit in lawn chairs on the rodeo grounds, linemen are often hard at work preparing for competition. For many utilities, the rodeo is a top priority and linemen spend all summer long practicing for the two known events — the pole climb and the hurtman rescue.
For the pole climb, competitors must climb to the top of the pole, place a raw egg in their mouth and climb down without jumping off the pole. The eggs are examined for cracks, which result in point deductions. For the hurtman rescue event, linemen must climb up the pole and rescue a 167-lb mannequin, bringing it down safely to the bottom.
In addition to these two known events, linemen must also compete in two mystery events, which are unknown to all competitors until they receive their registration packets at the rodeo.
The International Lineman's Rodeo Association added its first mystery event 16 years ago. This has helped to level the playing field and keep competitors on their toes, Warman says.
Linemen love the mystery events because they replicate the actual experience of line work, Saunders notes. “If you get a call, you don't know why the lights are out until you roll up at the location,” he says.
To further level the playing field, linemen now compete in several different categories such as investor owned, rural electric cooperative, municipal, military and contractors. They also compete by experience level in the apprentice, journeyman or senior division.
When the rodeo first started 25 years ago, it was primarily designed as an event for journeymen, but in recent years, apprentices have been allowed to compete. The rodeo is a valuable learning opportunity for the next generation of line workers, explains Warman.
“As they're learning and growing their skills, the apprentices can show their families and other linemen in their companies how well they're doing,” Warman says.
Steve Gilkey, the director of field operations for KCP&L and the treasurer for the rodeo, is glad to see an increasing number of apprentices competing because it shows that the line profession is alive and growing. He says apprentices who are new to the profession can see hundreds of linemen compete in the rodeo.
One of those apprentices was John Sutton of IBEW Local 816 in Paducah, Kentucky. He was the only apprentice from his company to attend the event, and he thinks it's wonderful the rodeo is celebrating its 25th anniversary. “I'm glad to see it going this long,” Sutton says. “It's great to have everyone in the same profession competing against each other.”
For the past 25 years, linemen have been able to compete for top honors, show their pride for the line trade and meet friends who work in the electric utility industry. While it takes countless hours of work from the volunteers, their hard work is all made worthwhile on the day of the competition.
“Why do we do it? We do it for them,” Warman says. “We want to make sure that it carries on and that they have an event every year to take their families to and have a good time.”
Although times may be difficult for utilities right now, says Warman, he sees a big value in the rodeo for utilities. Linemen who compete will go back to work and be more proficient in what they do, safer about what they do and have a greater sense of how the company and the linemen work for the same cause.
CELEBRATING 25 YEARS
This fall, as hundreds of linemen and their families travel to the Kansas City area for the 25th anniversary celebration of the International Lineman's Rodeo, they'll be able to take a trip back in time to the beginning of the rodeo. Organizers have gathered historic photos of the rodeo and are preparing a video presentation for the Saturday-evening banquet.
Jane Hall, a retired clerical supervisor for KCP&L and an ex-officio board member for the International Lineman's Rodeo Association (ILRA), says she was surprised to notice that in the old photos, there was not too much noticeable difference compared to current photos.
“Unless there happened to be a bucket truck in the background, these pictures didn't look particularly dated at all,” she says. “The significance that we hope people will notice is the different locations of the various rodeos and, of course, the people and participants who have aged over time.”
The ILRA also has invited past vendors, former board members and special guests, including the first winning three-man team from Manhattan, to a private dinner on Thursday, Sept. 11. This will be a closed celebration for those currently involved in the association and those past members who have moved on.
The association also has planned many special events, which will be scattered throughout the three days. The ILRA created a special logo for the 25th anniversary, and this logo will be used on all the merchandise as well as a special flag that skydivers will carry down with them on Friday evening. The finale of the fireworks display also will include an image of this logo blasted into the air.
At the awards banquet on Saturday night, each attending guest will receive a commemorative gift. A hand-carved ice sculpture of the 25th anniversary logo will be front and center of the stage.
For more information on this year's rodeo, the expo and the safety conference, visit www.linemansrodeokc.com.
LINEMAN'S RODEO HISTORY OF EVENTS
Twelve teams compete in the first Lineman's Rodeo at the Manhattan Area Vocational-Technical School in Manhattan, Kansas.
Due to the growing size of the rodeo, the event moves to the Kansas City Power & Light's Sub One Training Grounds.
For the first time, 20 apprentices compete in the rodeo. KCP&L also introduces a computer-based scoring system.
The number of companies participating in the rodeo grows from four in 1984 to 50 this year.
IBEW celebrates 100th anniversary and moves the rodeo to St. Louis, Missouri, for one year.
The rodeo is held in Kansas City, Missouri, near the Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun amusement parks. In 1992, the rodeo also adds its first mystery event.
The rodeo accepts its first international competitors. Teams from Canada and England compete in the 10th Annual Lineman's Rodeo. During this year, the ownership of the rodeo also transfers from TWSCO to the National Rodeo Association.
The rodeo moves to a vacant lot in the old Kansas City stockyards district.
The rodeo takes place in the West Bottoms area in Kansas City.
The International Lineman's Rodeo Association board works with Transmission & Distribution World magazine on the first expo.
The board of directors contracts with the National Agricultural Hall of Fame for a 10-year lease for open ground in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Due to this arrangement, the rodeo grounds do not need to be completely torn down and rebuilt each year.
International Lineman's Rodeo celebrates 25 years.