Hurricane Matthew pounded the East Coast just one week before the International Lineman’s Rodeo. While some utilities had to pull out of the competition to restore power and rebuild infrastructure, nearly 900 linemen still competed in the 33rd annual rodeo in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

“We anticipated that even more people couldn’t make it,” says Dale Warman, co-chairman of the International Lineman’s Rodeo Association (ILRA). “Long ago, however, we sat down and decided we would continue to have the rodeo for those who could attend, and we would keep it the same quality of event. We thought we owed that to whoever came.”

While this year’s event was slated to have a record number of competitors, four companies — Duke Energy, Progress Energy, JEA and Jamaica Public Service Co. — had to withdraw teams at the last minute because of the hurricane relief efforts.

“This year would have been the biggest rodeo hands down with more teams and judges registered than ever before, but the hurricane had a negative impact,” Childers says. “When a storm hits, linemen need to do what they need to do — restore power — instead of coming here to compete.”

2016 International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo

Back to Basics

Those linemen who were able to participate in the annual event, however, enjoyed a warm and windy day on the Agricultural Hall of Fame grounds. As in past years, the apprentices and journeymen competed in two mystery events, the pole climb and the hurt-man rescue.

“Each year we need to come up with new events that are challenging, but they also address issues that the linemen face every day,” Warman says.

One task that linemen often learn their first day on the job, but gets forgotten over time, is the knot tying. As such, the ILRA required each of the journeymen to tie a square knot, bowline or sheepshank knot during the second mystery event, in which they had to replace two primary conductor vibration dampers on conductors at the end of a 10-ft Brooks braceless crossarm. The Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) team had more than a 30-second lead on the second place team with a time of 5 minutes, 25 seconds for this event.

 “Over the years, the linemen became good at doing the events, but they weren’t doing the basic skills they need to become good linemen,” Childers says. “We wanted everyone who came to the rodeo to be a cracker jack when it came to tying knots.”

The apprentices also had to demonstrate their skills with rigging and rope tying during the mystery events. For the first mystery event, which took place inside a tent near the entrance to the rodeo grounds, the apprentices had 10 minutes to rig a set of two Klein sheave slack blocks without crossing the rope between the two blocks. They also had to finish the tail of the rope with a crown knot. Dustin Smith of PG&E took the lead by successfully completing this event in under 3 minutes, 30 seconds.

Jeff Weller, a third-year apprentice with Salt River Project, says he felt fortunate to come out with the rodeo team for the 2016 competition. After winning the rodeo at his company, he earned a spot on the rodeo team and began practicing as much as possible. The first time he competed, he got the rope through the open wire, but last year, he wasn’t able to complete the task in three attempts.

“We were sure there was going to be a rope toss, so we practiced that big time,”   says. “I also visualized in my head every step I had to do, and I tried not to waste any moves. The key is to plan ahead and stick to your plan.”

For the second mystery event, the apprentices had to not only replace two steel pins and insulators, but also throw and tie ropes. Gary Hoch, also of PG&E, scored 100 event points with no deductions, winning the event with a time of 9 minutes, 26 seconds. PG&E also won the first journeyman mystery event with a team of Jordan Chene, Nick Smith and Tony Humbert, who were tasked with replacing a transformer using Hastings Extendo hot sticks and rubber gloves and blankets.

2016 International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo

Showcasing Skills

While the apprentices and journeymen can’t practice beforehand for the mystery events, they often spend their free time focusing on the other two events — pole climb and the hurt-man rescue. For example, a journeyman team from Avista Utilities — Clay Grant, Brian Partington and Kurt Norris — practiced the hurt-man rescue and pole climb back in Spokane, Washington, before traveling to Kansas City for the international event.

“You need to have good communication when you’re doing the pole-top rescue,” says Partington, whose team placed 10th out of 206 journeymen teams. “We also try to get a game plan together before we even set foot on a pole.”

For this year’s hurt-man rescue, competitors had to lower the mannequin, which was wearing a Buckingham Rescue
SuperSqueeze belt, using a Buckingham OxBlock and attached handline. The journeyman team of Jimmy Staton, Dustin White, and Terry Duvall from OG&E placed first in this event with a time of 1 minute, 7 seconds.

In the apprentice division, Russell Smith of Avista Utilities not only won the hurt-man rescue, but also the pole climb, in which he had to ascend a 40-ft pole with an egg in a small bucket. The competitors then had to drop the bucket, yell “headache,” hang a new bucket on the J hook, put the raw egg in their mouths and climb down without breaking the egg. For the journeymen division, Eversource won the event with a time of 40 seconds.

2016 International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo

Overall, the team with the fastest time, most points and least amount of deductions came from Southern California Edison/IBEW Local 47. Ramon Garcia, Wi Robinson and Jacob John Lybbert earned the title of “2017 Best of the Best Journeyman Team.” In the apprentice division, Chris Sanchez from the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power was named the top apprentice for the second year in a row.

Within the journeyman and apprentice categories, the ILRA also recognized the top winners in six different divisions — SCE and Jeremy Jones of Xcel Energy for IOU; Cobb EMC and Grant McCune of Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative for REA; IBEW Local 1245 and Chris Sanchez of LADWP for MUNI; Potelco and Case Brogdon of Southwestern Line Constructors for contractor; the Delta Company 249th Engineering Battalion for the military division; and Cobb EMC for the seniors division.

2016 International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo

Supporting Linemen

As the linemen competed in the events high above the rodeo grounds, their family members were watching them from the ground below. For example, Lacy Fielder and her two-year-old son, Grason, cheered on her husband, who works for Westar Energy, which sponsored the event along with Kansas City Power & Light. As Grason jumped up and down in his cowboy boots, he hung on to the rope and yelled, “Good job, Dad!”

Like as in past years, the ILRA set up a children’s area. For 2016, the kids were able to enjoy a fishing demonstration in the pond, rock climbing, and a train and hay ride. Also, some vendors also displayed their products in outdoor booths, and the participating companies set up more than 65 tents for their linemen and their families.

For many linemen’s families, the rodeo is a time for everyone to come together, celebrate the trade and watch their loved ones show their skills.

“We look at our Lineman’s Rodeo like a big family reunion,” says Rodney Lewis II, service supervisor for Portland General Electric and ILRA board member. “We want to make sure that everyone is safe, and the event is a class act and they enjoy coming here and want to come back.” 

2016 International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo


Editor’s note: Visit tdworld.com/electric-utility-operations to see a photo gallery with more photos from the 2016 International Lineman’s Rodeo or view a video at https://youtu.be/LSOh6qP-GMs. Also, to view the final results of the rodeo, visit the International Lineman’s Rodeo Association website at www.linemansrodeokc.com.

Sidebar: ILRA Implements Changes for 2016 Rodeo

To streamline the competition and make it flow more smoothly and efficiently for the participants, the International Lineman’s Rodeo Association made the following changes for the 2016 event.
1. Apprentice exam. Rather than taking the written exam the morning of the rodeo, the apprentices took the test the afternoon before at the Overland Park Convention Center.
    “By moving the written test to Friday afternoon, we can get all the events on the ground completed on time,” says Rick Childers. “In the past, having 300 apprentices taking the test has delayed the start of the climbing events. This year, when it is time to start on Saturday morning, they will be ready to go. That is a huge change for this year.”
    Jeff Weller, an apprentice for SRP, says that this approach was more efficient, and he was supportive of the change. “Our rodeo team is a brotherhood, and in the past, the apprentices had to be separate from the rest of our team, and we couldn’t watch the opening ceremony,” he says. “This year, we can keep our team close and stay focused on the physical work we have to do.”
2. Earlier start time. The ILRA also bumped the start time of the opening ceremony 30 minutes earlier from 7:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. As a result, teams of linemen packed their tool carts and donned their hard hats to prepare for a full day of competition before the sun even rose on the rodeo grounds.
3. Expanding the grounds. The organizers added more stations to the hurt man rescue and expanded the apprentice competition area by clearing out a wooded section of the grounds.
4. Implementing random start for the apprentices. Select apprentices received a packet with a sticker on it saying that they were randomly selected to report to an event within a certain time frame or they would get a point deduction.
    “We have had random start for journeymen for many years, but having it for apprentices was new for this year,” says Rodney Lewis II, service supervisor for Portland General Electric and ILRA board member. “While it’s just a point deduction, they won’t win the rodeo if they get a point taken off.”
    One reason why the ILRA implemented this change is to level the playing field, Childers says. Often, after the rodeo started, journeymen and apprentices would hang around for an hour to watch their competitors before going to their first event.
    “Now we have 80 journeymen teams and 80 apprentices that have 20 minutes to report to their first event so everyone is not standing back and getting ideas from the other competitors,” Childers says. “They are all good linemen, so they’re able to handle it.”
5. Awarding new championship belts. To honor the top winners, the ILRA and Buckingham Manufacturing awarded them with a special surprise for this year’s rodeo: engraved championship belts. For many years, the ILRA has awarded the top journeyman team and apprentice with trophies, but these end up in corporate offices on display rather than in the linemen’s hands.
    “We wanted the linemen to have their glory and be able to get attention and appreciation for what they did,” says Dale  Warman.
    Childers says he first saw the belts at the Climbin’ for Linemen competition in St. Louis this summer. He then shared the idea with the board and got the go ahead to ask Buckingham Manufacturing to make custom belts for the winners. Each black leather climbing belt featured three brass plates engraved with the 2017 rodeo, ILRA and Buckingham logos. Lewis says the belts created a new level of excitement at the rodeo banquet.
    “When they get these big belts, it will be like opening a Christmas present,” Lewis says.