Twenty-nine-year-old Dustin Partika had butterflies in his stomach as he approached the International Lineman's Rodeo grounds for the first time. Far away from his home of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S., Partika didn't know what to expect.

“I could not believe how many people were there, and it was so much bigger than I imagined it to be,” said Partika, an apprentice for the Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO).

While he had seen some videos of the rodeo competition on YouTube, he said it was a completely different experience in person. Twenty-two apprentices and journeymen — including 12 from Oahu, five from Maui and five from the Big Island — made the long trek to the state of Kansas.

“The best part of being in Kansas was the way we all took care of each other,” he said. “We were so far from home that we were like one big family.”

The company's CEO, Dick Rosenblum, was on hand to support the linemen at the rodeo. He sponsored the trip as part of his company's mission to embrace change. Fred Kana'i Kauhane, supervisor of HECO's construction and maintenance department, said he found the people at the rodeo to be warm and friendly.

“In Hawaii, we live Aloha,” he said. “The Aloha Spirit is a well-known reference to the attitude of friendly acceptance for which the Hawaiian Islands are so famous. In Kansas, I found the people to be the same. Everyone went out of their way to see that we were happy.”

Training Techniques

To prepare for the rodeo, Partika met with a group of coworkers at the end of the work day to climb and practice different techniques.

The Hawaiian utilities set up training sessions with the A Company, 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) and Northwest Linemen College, which taught rigging classes. The linemen had the opportunity to make new friends, exchange climbing techniques and set up their own Lineman's Rodeo events.

HECO linemen also collaborated with Hawaiian Electric Light Co. and Maui Electric Co. linemen and apprentices.

“Although we were one team, we never worked together, so it was nice being able to spend time with our outer island brothers,” Kauhane said.

While the Hawaiian Electric linemen took a team approach to training, the mainland utilities also encouraged their linemen to work together to prepare for the competition. For example, after work, the Ameren Illinois apprentices practiced on poles, which were set up on the work site. They practiced two days a week for a month and then studied for the written test.

Jessie Levi, an apprentice lineman for Duke Energy in Anderson, South Carolina, also practiced alongside other linemen on a line set up behind his office building. He worked on changing out insulators, tapping transformers, improving the time on his speed climb and safely “rescuing” the dummy during the hurt man rescue. Like the other competitors, he also studied all the material for the written test and prepared as much as possible for the mystery event.

“For me, it was one of those things that was such a long time coming,” said Levi the day before the rodeo, where he scored a 94 on his written test and earned fifth place in the Top Apprentice Overall category. “You try to practice everything you can to prepare for the event, and when it begins to get close, you want to just do it instead of talking about it.”

On the Road

After the linemen had trained for the competition and packed up their tools, they were ready to hit the road and put their skills to the test. For many field crews, the trip to Kansas is often as eventful as the competition itself.

Just ask the Hawaii linemen who had to travel 10 hours by plane with a three-hour layover just to get to Kansas City. Others carpooled with their teammates like Levi, who traveled with a big group to Kansas City. Three journeyman teams and two apprentice teams traveled together.

“They brought a lot of support for us, and it's like a family gathering,” Levi said. “I often see other linemen at rodeos and storms, and it is always good to get back together. We've had a lot of fun on this trip.”

Jonathan Hoffman, a 28-year-old second-class lineman for Empire District Electric Co. in Joplin, Missouri, said one of his favorite parts of the trip was being able to spend time with his coworkers away from work. He traveled with a group of 50 workers, and six of the employees were first-timers. He said the trip took about 2.5 hours, and they all stayed together at the Marriott hotel.

In addition to hitting the road in a caravan of cars, some utilities also rented luxury buses to transport its teams to the event. For example, Manitoba Hydro loaded 16 employees including its top two apprentices and top two journeymen in a bus at 5 a.m. Nineteen hours later, the Canadian team arrived at their hotel at midnight.

Dusty Hegalson, a fourth-year apprentice for Manitoba Hydro who ranked as the 63rd apprentice in the 2010 competition, said he was honored to be one of the two Manitoba Hydro apprentices competing at the rodeo. As the son of a veteran lineman and rodeo judge, he said it meant a lot to both him and his father that he was able to compete for the first time.

Putting Skills to the Test

Often, linemen arrive in Kansas a day or two early to attend the International Lineman's Expo and Safety Conference at the Overland Park Convention Center. Early on Saturday morning, however, they are fired up and ready to compete.

Dave Bailey, a troubleman for Local 702 in West Frankfort, Illinois, said that his apprentices were well rounded, well prepared and were full of nervous anticipation in the hours leading up to the main event.

Video short from the Lineman's barbecue

“We have two or three first timers, and they don't know what to expect,” said Bailey, who traveled with 30 linemen from central and south Illinois. “At the end of the day, however, I think they'll be surprised by how well they did.”

The first-time competitors work hard to get to the International Lineman's Rodeo, and they're often under a significant amount of pressure, said Paul Lira, the business manager for Local 304 and a 20-year industry veteran.

“The International Lineman's Rodeo is very competitive, and many companies allow their teams to practice year round,” said Lira, who competed in every rodeo until 1997. “These guys practice day in and day out, and they must do it safely and without mistakes. If you don't make any mistakes, however, you're not trying.”

When these linemen perform their trade in front of peers, they often strive to complete the test without any mishaps. If they do, they will never live it down. Lira should know. When he was an apprentice, he had a humbling experience during the hurt man rescue in front of the international vice president of the IBEW.

Lira watched the taller competitors flip the rope during the event, but when he tried it, he let the hitch go. The dummy then plunged to the ground and created a big puddle in the pouring rain.

“I learned that day that you can't hide behind crossarms,” said Lira, who relived the experience years later when he ran into the same IBEW leader at a conference in Alberta.

When linemen participate in the competition for the first time, anything can and will happen. For example, during the speed climb portion of the competition, apprentices must climb up the pole with an egg in a small bucket, drop the bucket down to the ground, put a raw egg in their mouths and hang a new bucket on the J hook. They must then try to climb down the pole without breaking the egg or they incur a 10-point deduction.

Eric Weekly, a 25-year-old from Salem, Oregon, thought that he was going to win the speed climb in 22 seconds. Instead, he wound up with 25 seconds with a broken egg. At the end of the day, he wound up in 164th place out of 209 apprentices with 448 points.

Weekly, who traveled on his own from Oregon, however, said he had a wonderful time at his first-time competition. For many competitors, it isn't about how they placed, but rather about the camaraderie, networking and knowledge they bring back home with them.

The International Lineman's Rodeo is a great learning experience for new apprentices all the way up to the experienced journeymen, said Greg Schumacher, an engineer and supervisor for Ameren Illinois.

“I think they learn a lot about safety by competing in the rodeo,” said Schumacher, who was on hand to cheer on his 21-year-old son, Tyson, who was competing in the rodeo for the first time. “It's most important to do it right. Speed isn't everything.”

Chris Dockins, a 34-year-old journeyman lineman for IBEW 304 in Topeka, Kansas, agreed. He said that while he finished the hurt man rescue in three minutes, he was more concerned with getting the “man” down safely than about his time. He came to the event with his wife, Jill, and his 9-year-old and 11-year-old, Toby and Dale. He said it was the first time they had ever had the chance to see what he does for a living.

“I've never been able to see him in 12 years, but he is very passionate about it,” said Jill Dockins, whose husband's team finished 65th out of 158 teams. “We are all very excited, and I had to quiet my daughter down so we weren't all screaming when he got on the pole for the first time.”

By competing in the rodeo, the linemen had the opportunity to not only show off their skills in front of their family and friends, but they were also able to learn new skills. For the Hawaii team, the mission of the trip was to learn as much as possible and gain a better understanding of the industry as a whole.

“We want the best for our men, and we want them to work safely,” Kauhane said. “We will achieve this with the knowledge we bring back home.”

Partika, who placed 95th out of 209 entries, said the competition was a learning experience for him as well as the other linemen.

“After the event was over, there were some things that I wished that I could do over again, but I'm sure that's how everyone felt,” he said. “I gave it my best, and I am happy with that.”

Partika said one technique he learned from the other linemen was how to hot stick. Since he and his team members don't hot stick in Hawaii, they turned to linemen from other utilities for a crash course on it before the mystery event.

Partika said the best thing about the rodeo was all the people he met at the International Lineman's Expo and Rodeo.

“Everyone was so nice and helpful, and they were willing to lend a hand with anything you needed,” said Partika, who has about 4,000 hours and a year-and-a-half in the trade. “I hope someday we are able to help others the way everyone else helped us.”

2010 Lineman's Rodeo Winners
Journeyman Overall
Place Company Team members
1st Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Toby Claude, Brian Wheeler, Jason Houle
2nd Greystone Power Josh Jones, Tony Brown, Patrick LeCroy
3rd CenterPoint Energy Jeremiah Gaetani, Alexander Kimich, Rodney Greims
4th CenterPoint Energy Jeff Clapp, Raymond Goyer, Terry Phillips
5th IBEW Local 304 Cody Kreuger, Jerry Wetter, Nick Kreuger
Journeyman Division Winners
1st Place Company Team members
Contractor IBEW Local 304 Cody Kreuger, Jerry Wetter, Nick Kreuger
Investor owned Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Toby Claude, Brian Wheeler, Jason Houle
Military B Company, 249th Engineer Ballalion U.S. Army Aaron Saunders, William Test, Michael Hughes
Municipal New Braunfels Utilities Ryan Voges, Justin Green, Darin Koehler
REA, EMC and Co-op Greystone Power Josh Jones, Tony Brown, Patrick LeCroy
Seniors CenterPoint Energy Jeff Clapp, Raymond Goyer, Terry Phillips
Journeyman Pole Climb
Place Company Team members
1st Oklahoma Gas & Electric Greg Mullins, James Carpenter, Jason Clank
2nd Portland General Electric Kevin Akers, Ryan Hagel, Brandon Courtain
3rd Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Toby Claude, Brian Wheeler, Jason Houle
Journeyman Hurt Man Rescue
Place Company Team members
1st Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Toby Claude, Brian Wheeler, Jason Houle
2nd Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Art Garcia Jr., Brandon Evans, Scott Marlatt
3rd The United Illuminating Co. Will Coleman, Thomas Jeger, Ed Gorman
Mystery Event 1: Skills Demonstration
Place Company Team members
1st Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Toby Claude, Brian Wheeler, Jason Houle
2nd CenterPoint Energy
3rd Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Art Garcia Jr., Brandon Evans, Scott Marlatt
Mystery Event 2: Relocate #2 Primary Conductor
Place Company Team members
1st IBEW Local 1245 Dustin Krieger, Josh Klikna, Mark Pickens
2nd IBEW Local 702 Jason Novak, Kent Diekemper, Dave Bailey
3rd Greystone Power Josh Jones, Tony Brown, Patrick LeCroy
Apprentice Overall
Place Company Team member
1st Duke Energy Aaron Smith
2nd Southern California Edison Jestin Cornelison
3rd Xcel Energy Jordan King
4th Xcel Energy Jason Diekmann
5th Duke Energy Jessie Levi
Apprentice Division Winners
1st Place Company Team member
Contractor IBEW Local 2150 Chris Bracey
Investor owned Duke Energy Aaron Smith
Municipal BC Hydro Robin Poirer
REA, EMC and Co-op Walton EMC Charles Ryan West
Apprentice Written Test
Place Company Team member
1st Duke Energy Aaron Smith
2nd Southern California Edison Jestin Cornelison
3rd Tucson Electric Power Joseph Breda
Apprentice Pole Climb
Place Company Team member
1st Licking Valley RECC Matthew Harris
2nd Portland General Electric Dustin Miller
3rd IBEW Local 702 Tyson Schumacher
Apprentice Hurt Man Rescue
Place Company Team member
1st Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Cole Woodburn
2nd Southern California Edison Enoc Verdin Jr.
3rd Walton EMC Bradley McCallister
Mystery Event: Replace Bad Poly Bell Insulator
Place Company Team member
1st Kansas City Power & Light Brian Felix
2nd Arizona Public Service/IBEW Local 387 Champ Garvin
3rd Allteck Raiden Kika
Apprentice CPR
Place Company Team member
1st Southern California Edison Jestin Cornelison
2nd Kansas City Power & Light Brian Felix
3rd Xcel Energy Mark Thomas