AmerenUE linemen encounter a fused pipe and damaged cable on a routine day out in the field.
Al Patterson and his heavy underground crew light up downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Unlike his AmerenUE linemen counterparts, who work overhead and cruise around the UE service territory with a distinguishable bucket truck, he and his cohorts drive trucks that blend in with delivery trucks. It's as if the crew moves about incognito.
Much of the overhead work is out in the open. A customer knows when a three-man crew is working a job, because a bucket in the air tells them work is being done. With the underground crew, however, it's a different story. While the workers wear the same Ameren clothing and safety vests, and their trucks feature the Ameren logo as other linemen, customers often aren't sure what they do.
Rather than scaling poles and working out of bucket trucks, this crew is responsible for maintaining the network of cables located beneath the streets of downtown St. Louis. The streets are dotted with manholes or handholes throughout the city. Manholes are subsurface enclosures, either 6 ft by 10 ft or 8 ft by 12 ft. Handholes are a much tighter fit, either 2 ft by 2 ft or 2 ft by 4 ft.
On a bitterly cold day, the crew of Ray Anderson, Justin Goad and T.C. Dancy left AmerenUE's Heavy Underground Works headquarters. Patterson pointed out many of the manholes and handholes he had been in since he started with the department six years ago.
When his crew works underground in the wintertime, the workers often don't mind going into the manholes, Patterson said. The cables generate heat, and because they're working underground, the temperature doesn't change that much. So, although the temperature may drop down below freezing, the underground workers will stay warm underground.
While Heavy Underground spends quite a bit of time under cover, so to speak, there are times when they definitely stand out. For example, sometimes they have to work on a manhole in the middle of an intersection. As the crew headed to Olive and Interstate 270 to pull cable, Patterson said to keep an eye out for how many manholes are in the middle of a downtown street.
As he pointed out one of the holes, Patterson said that AmerenUE has manholes in some of the worst spots in town. Because of the heavy amount of traffic, it can often be scary for the workers. When they have to get to a job, and they're working on the manhole truck, they have to decide which way to turn the truck to cause the least amount of trouble and confusion for the public.
As the crew pulls into a vacant lot, they wait to hear word that the switchgear near the job site has been de-energized. Before starting the job, the crew surveys the site, and Anderson calls for a tailgate meeting. The Heavy Underground crew often holds tailgate meetings to get everyone on the same page and to point out any safety hazards.
After the meeting, the workers pull more than 300 ft of cable using Heavy Underground's reel carrier truck. The truck rolls the cable onto a large reel. The second pull is nearly 260 ft of cable.
According to Patterson, because the cable is damaged, the crew has to scrap it. Salvage workers come down to the site occasionally to pick up the scrap cable and recycle it.
Once the second cable is pulled and the job site is cleaned up, the crew takes a 30-minute break for lunch. The second part of the day will be spent at Spruce and Fourth streets. Two blocks west of the site is Busch Stadium, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
The crew spends time attempting to pull old cable that has shorted and fused to an iron pipe. Only a small portion is pulled from the manhole when the crew elects to attempt a pull from the switchgear. However, the switchgear is sitting near a paid parking lot. An attendant sees the crew working and asks if he can call the Mercury Marquis' owner to remove the car.
The crew tries to remove the cable without disturbing the vehicle. Within a few minutes, the owner — watching from an office window — moves his car and the cable is successfully removed.
As the crew cleans up and gets ready to roll back to Gratiot Street, the only fanfare is the crew waving thanks to the parking lot attendant who helped to remove the car.
The crew arrives back to the garage, marking another day of success — completing their jobs and doing so safely. Safety is what the Heavy Underground crew is all about, Patterson said. They all strive to go home in the same way that they came to work in the morning.
Brian Bretsch works for the employee communications department at AmerenUE, St. Louis. He wrote this article for his company's publication, Ameren Journal.
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