About a month after reporting on an Altec utility truck, I had one parked in my driveway.
We had been having the strangest problem with our electricity. The lights would randomly flicker. There was no particular rhyme or reason for it, as far as we could tell.
Then John D. Gibbs with Gulf Power drove up in his Altec equipped 2004 Freightliner and showed us a couple of ongoing challenges that linemen in our area face on a regular basis: squirrels and trees.
The first problem, in our case, was the tree—a pretty heritage oak had gotten into a tussle with Gulf Power and had been winning, at least temporarily.
A branch on the centuries old tree had been weighing down a ground wire to the point that it had weakened the connection. When the wind picked up, the branch would move and the ghost-like flickering would begin.
Shortly after Gibbs went up in his bucket he revealed another problem: squirrels. The little brown bandits (they’re actually grey squirrels, but they mostly look brown) had chewed up some powerline crimps.
Gibbs later explained that animals account for about half of the company’s power outages. But it’s not always the squirrels and other critters that give linemen so much grief.
Gibbs explained that in some neighborhoods people are more concerned with the trees than the powerlines. He’s even had people threatening to get him fired for simply doing his job—cutting back limbs that interfere with powerlines. Complicating matters is the fact that some of the trees, including heritage oaks, are protected species.
I like trees, but I’ve seen what they can do when they collapse on a powerline. A neighbor’s water oak across the street split down the middle on a beautiful Florida day, landed on the powerline and sent that wire down on the street dancing around like a jumping-jack firecracker.
A tree is not worth risking electrocution or a power outage for the entire block, as was the case for our neighbor’s tree (he kept apologizing for not having it cut down earlier that year). What goes up, must come down. And the odds will be more in your favor, if those branches come down on your own terms, and not Mother Nature’s.
After talking with Gibbs some more, I learned more about his truck and the utility business.
Underground utilities have helped reduce some challenges associated with older, airborne powerlines, though the new technology is not free from problems. Wires buried underground are more difficult to trace. Unsightly utility boxes on the ground that serve as access points for the underground wires are often hidden by flowers and shrubs, making them difficult to find, especially at night.
Gibbs is pleased with his Altec utility truck which he says is quiet during those frequent PTO moments when he’s operating his bucket. His is the only four-wheel drive bucket truck at the Gulf Power office in Panama City. His truck comes in handy for off-road jobs.
While squirrel guards have been effective at minimizing power outages by the furry foragers, there has been a new hazard at work which is more of a concern for linemen: distracted drivers.
“People nowadays are distracted so much by a cell phone. You can sit at a red light and watch people come through texting all the time. It’s scary. It’s really scary. Whereas 10 years ago, that wasn’t so much an issue, but now with phones and text, oh my gosh,” Gibbs said.
In October, a 23-year-old driver near where Gibbs works was killed after crashing into a flatbed truck. The collision caused a power outage. Police reported that the 23-year-old driver had been texting at the time.
Not long after that, Gibbs was up in his bucket working next to a busy road when he witnessed a car crash. A driver, distracted by police on the side of the road, slammed into the back of another car.
Gibbs’ truck is loaded full of equipment and plenty of tools. He and other Gulf Power linemen are serious about safety. They go through long, daily checklists to ensure that their trucks are running properly. They work together to best address power issues. They put out orange cones to let drivers know that they’re working on the side of the road. Gibbs said his family even prays for his safety regularly.
Now, drivers need to do their part and focus more on driving and less on the latest distraction.