The Lectric Power Guys respond to line down --- no trivial challenge

We've all lost power in our homes, for a wide variety of reasons. Most of the time, we don't have a chance to see the power company crews go to work to repair what's wrong. I recently had the chance to do that after a tree fell on electrical wires in my residential neighborhood in Wausau, Marathon County. The force of the fallen tree on the wires snapped an electrical wire-telephone pole, our neighborhood lost power, and the "Power Guys" clicked into action. Luckily, it was a wonderful spring day. Try to imagine them doing all this in below zero temperatures and blinding snow! It was fun and uplifting to see these professionals at work, and I learned a lot. I'll walk you through what I saw.

By Ed Marek, editor

May 22, 2009


The Wausau Daily Herald reported on May 17, 2009 that wind gusts knocked down a tree and took down some power lines in a residential neighborhood on the northeast side of town. The paper said that Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) repaired the lines and left it at that.

It turns out this happened in my neighborhood. I went over to watch and photograph what the "Power Guys" from WPS did. I want to say "Thanks Guys!", and I'll add that this was no trivial response. Yes, the weather was good --- they didn't have to do this in a blizzard --- but nonetheless, the Power Guys brought in multiple response units and they worked together like a choreographed ballet.

I watched most of the operation --- I found it fascinating. I'll try my best to show you what's involved. I'd suggest you try to imagine all this happening in below zero temps with blinding snow, because they would have done the same as they did here. Hat's off to the Power Guys and the others who supported them --- the Wausau Police and the Park Service.


We're in a residential neighborhood of Wausau known as Forest Park, on the corner of 11th and Crocker Streets. The house you see is for sale. The tree that fell was "deader than a doornail," and, in this rookie's opinion, should have been cut down some time ago. You can see the wires. Originally, those wires were under the fallen tree. One of the WPS workers --- hereinafter the "Power Guys," used a chain saw to cut the tree so he could pull out the wires. You can that he has the wires out from under and lying on top the tree.


Here's a closer look. If you were to walk up to the part of the tree left standing --- I chose not to because they had it blocked off with warning cones and I would have had to climb over the downed wires, which I did not want to do --- you would see the tree was dead. Had you looked at the rest of the downed tree, you would have seen very few leaves on it. She was dead for sure. Please note the number of wires the Power Guy pulled out from underneath. I'll tell you that he checked them very carefully to see if they were damaged and I believe he concluded they were in good shape, though I did not stay long enough to see if they replaced them.


Here's a pretty close look at where the Power Guy made his surgical incision. You can see the chunk he took out center bottom. This took some careful work because he did not want to cut the wires, only the tree.

I would also add that the Power Guy working here wore a whole bunch of protective gear, all colored orange so you could see him plainly, even in bad weather. I was impressed with how he suited up before he tackled this job. Given I am a rookie to all this, my feeling as a sideline observer was that anything could have happened with those wires once he cut through the tree and freed them. I wondered whether they might have snapped out of there and entangled him, for example. So I was happy to see him protected.


To the left of the tree, you see the lines running up to a light pole which is out of the photo and to the left. The Power Guy took a good look at what the situation was on that light pole, which is only, maybe 50 ft. away, and apparently determined all was well.

I wanted to show you the scene of the fallen tree first so you could understand the source of the overall problem. However, caring for this was not the first order of business for the Power Guys.

The first responder worked on an area up the street a bit as the top order of business. While I watched everything that was going on for a few hours, from the start, I was late in bringing my camera to the scene so I'll have to ask you to envision a few things I did not photograph.


This is an overview shot after quite a bit of equipment had arrived. You see the downed tree in the foreground and the down wires draped over it after they had been extracted from underneath. On the left the Power Guys are working on the broken pole. Frankly, I was surprised to see that the forces the wires placed on the pole farther up the street broke that pole, while the pole closer to the location where the tree fell was in good shape. This would be a great physics study.

Directly across the street from the broken pole was another pole holding a significant number of lines.

I'll be calling the location of the fallen tree as "down the street" and the area of the broken pole "up the street." Crocker runs east-west. Left here is south, right is north. Those orange cones are on 11th Street which runs north-south.

Okay, let's try to start at the beginning of the response and then press forward.

The tree fell, knocked down the wires, and broke a pole. People in my neighborhood, two streets away, heard the crash. They thought a car might have smashed into a pole. We lost power at my home. I decided to drive around to see if I could find what happened. I did.

When I got there, the Power Guys had not yet arrived. But the first Power Guy responder was there moments after I got there --- a pretty fast response I thought. He walked around the area, assessed the situation, and called his assessment in. He then went straight to work, on his own.

One of his first actions was to stabilize his truck. This truck has a lot of equipment on it that can carry some big loads, including Power Guys in the bucket, so you do not want the truck moving around while at work.


The yellow arrows point to jacks on the near side that hold the truck in place. There are two others on the other side.

The first Power Guy then began working on a location that I would not have imagined he would select as his top priority.

He started his work on the pole on the right side of the street, the north side. I call this the "Good Pole," because to my knowledge, nothing there was damaged. My guess is that's why he wanted to start work there --- he wanted to stabilize the key wires on that pole because he knew they would have to work on the broken pole across the street, which had wires running to the Good Pole.

Let's take a look.


This is the Good Pole directly across Crocker Street from the broken pole. The broken pole was broken and buckling, but it had not broken completely apart and was still standing. But the Power Guys knew she would have to be replaced, so the first Power Guy on the scene worked to stabilize the Good Pole. He had a bucket truck. He stabilized his truck with jacks, got out and put on his protective gear, grabbed some equipment, including that orange pole, and climbed in the bucket and raised himself up to the area at which you're looking. He placed the orange pole, which I assume is adjustable in length, to stabilize a set of wires that go north-south --- that is, they stretch between the Good Pole and the Broken Pole on the other side of the street.


Here you see a closer look at the orange pole, which I will refer to as the "stabilizer." Note all the wires attached to the Good Pole. This is an average residential street, but this pole is carrying a lot of wire. If you look closely at the wooden pole, you can see a yellowish strap with hooks at the top and bottom that I believe he placed as well, to stabilize other things. I believe he did all this because he anticipated the work that was going to have to be done to the broken pole directly across the street, and he wanted to be certain key wires on the Good Pole would hold steady as they worked.

Shortly after he finished this, several other WPS trucks arrived as did two police cars. I'm not going to say much about the police, because I have to guess at what they were doing other than routine traffic control kinds of things, vandalism assessments, injuries, etc. My guess, however, is that they played an important coordination role. The Power Guys had their hands full repairing the wires and the broken pole. They were not going to handle the tree stretched across Crocker Street. They did what was needed to free the wires and they were done with that tree. I suspect the police coordinated with the Power Guys to get their assessment and then with the Parks Department to get someone out there to clear the tree. There was no traffic, warning cones were out, they could see what happened, and there were no injuries, so the police left. The Parks Guy did come later --- I'll show some photos of him later.

I was happy to see more trucks and Power Guys show up, because the first responder could not handle this job himself. What I would learn is that this event required a host of Power Guys and a host of equipment and lots of know-how.

Once these guys arrived, several operations set in motion.

One operation was to pull out the broken pole. The Power Guys wanted to do this without having to disconnect all the wires attached to the top of the pole. So they latched on to the top of the pole and the bottom, and sawed it. They then positioned the top part holding the wires so that no stress would be placed on those wires as they crossed the street to the Good Pole. In effect, it hung in the air.


Here you see one of the pieces of power equipment holding the top portion of the pole in place and you can see the wires still attached. Most of the wires you see run across the street to the Good Pole, but there are wires running down the street as well that are lying on the ground.


This is the part of the old pole that was broken by the forces of the tree falling on the wire down the street. When the Power Guys got there, this section was still attached to the rest of the pole, though you could see her buckling. Once they sawed it off away from the top section of the pole, they pulled the bottom out from the ground.


This gives you a good look at the multiple operations that would go on simultaneously. In the upper right quadrant, you see the sawn off top part of the broken pole being held in place by the boom. They want it there because they do not want to put any stress on the wires going across the street to the Good Pole and down the street. Keeping the wires up there also will make it easier to transfer them to the new pole once they place it in the ground. You can see the broken end of the bottom pole lying on the ground in the lower right quadrant.

You see the red auger in the lower right quadrant and the operator seated on the side of the truck with the blue and white shirt and yellow helmet. An auger is a tool, this one made of strong metal, for boring a hole in the ground --- kind of like a big drill.

Then in the center of the photo, you can see the new pole lying horizontally. That pole was labeled at the end as an "emergency pole." It came to the scene clean. In this photo you can see the Power Guys had already attached one piece of electric wire equipment at the end on the right --- you can see it sticking out. We'll look at it again.

So three operations going on --- hold the top portion of the old pole up there, dig a hole for the new replacement pole, and outfit the new pole with the things it needs to hold the wires and make them useful.

Let's take a closer look at the auger operation.


This is a nice shot of the auger, to the right. You can see it's "one big drill." In this photo, it so happens that the auger had already drilled down the old hole. These two Power Guys clean it off and then go down there with special poles that help them dislodge stone that is caught in the auger's way and causing the drilling problems. The Forest Park section of Wausau has tons of stone under the landscape. They're a real problem, and often a challenge. The auger went in and out several times until they got to their desired depth. As an aside, they used the same hole used by the original pole but it still took a lot of work to get the hole the way they wanted it.


There's the operator in the blue and white checkered shirt. He's got the auger down in the hole drilling the hole and cleaning it out. Please note the hydraulic black and white jack coming from the truck to the ground stabilizing the truck. That ol' auger is putting a lot of stress on the truck. For you aspiring engineers, it would be fun to better understand how that auger machine can put so much force downward --- a study in hydraulic design I think.


Here's a good look at the handsome dude operating the auger, in case you know him. But I also want to emphasize how he is concentrating on his work, and I wanted you to see some of the tools attached to the truck, all attached in their place. I'm going to show you more on this later --- these Power Guys come with a lot of equipment, big and small, and they've got it all stored just right.


Here are two Power Guys digging after the auger is withdrawn from the hole. I think one of them is the auger operator who has been seated for quite some time --- you've got to give him credit, he's in there digging with his partner. He ain't afraid to get in the dirt. That's what I loved about all these guys --- they work as a team. The guy in the red shirt could pass for Robert De Niro!

Let's move over to outfitting the new pole.


The brain trust reviews how they are going to set up the new pole.


Preparing the new pole is a no-foolin' around operation. This Power Guy has his measuring tape out and is preparing to spot down where the fittings should go. Before going on, in the lower left quadrant you can see the guy wire fitting that used to hold on to the old pole.


Work begins to set up the new pole. Here a Power Guy is drilling some holes in the pole which will hold hardware that in turn will hold the wires.


Holes drilled, the Power Guy can now install the hardware he will need to hold the wires. He drilled his holes through the diameter of the pole and he anchors the new hardware with heavy-duty nuts on the bolts below.

While this work was going on, the Parks Department arrived to take care of the fallen tree.


The Parks guy took a quick look at the site of the fallen tree, and his first order of business was to get on his safety equipment. I can't overemphasize the importance of wearing the safety devices and clothes. These guys seemed to take this very seriously, which is good.

You can see he's got a pretty big rig himself capable of handling multiple different situations. One Parks Guy came, and he did not call for any backup.


This is the situation he was looking at. Once he donned his emergency equipment, mostly a brightly colored jacket and orange helmet, along with protective aprons covering his legs, he went up to talk to the Power Guys to be sure he understood the status of those wires lying on the tree he would have to cut and to make sure his work was a "Go." He got the go ahead and went to work. I like this kind of coordination --- very professional.


Note the Parks Guys is wearing ear protectors to safeguard his ears and hearing. I assume his helmet is a different color from the Power Guys so at a glance everyone could tell who everyone was in terms of type of work they would be doing. The Navy does this aboard aircraft carriers.

You can see he is slicing the tree in segments a man can handle. He initially threw them over on the grass to get them out of the street. It's worth repeating yet again how important safety is --- the cones are set out to alert drivers and people out walking, running, or bicycling that there is a danger "no go" zone there. I respected these and shot many of my photos from a distance.


The Parks Guy cut through this tree like a hot knife through butter. When I initially watched the Power Guy cut through to free his wires, he seemed to have some difficulty with his chain saw. That could have been due to the fact that he had to be very careful as he was trying to free the wires, or his chain saw needed a new chain. Whatever the case, after coordinating with the Power Guys, the Parks Guy cut through that tree rapidly --- maybe he had a better saw and less risk. Note the orange colored apron over his blue jeans. That's protective equipment to protect him from the wires, just in case one of them was dangerous. Safety is so important for these workers.

The Parks Guy kept working to get that tree off the road. In the mean time, the Power Guys had their new pole outfitted with the needed hardware and were ready to put her in the hole they had dug and cleared.


The auger has been disconnected and now the operator has locked on to the new pole with his hydraulic equipment and is guiding it to the hole.


While the machine operator can get the new pole over the target hole, another Power Guy is needed to position the bottom of the pole in the hole. Once in the hole, others came over to help assure the pole was straight and to help guide the pole down the hole into place.


This is a bit of tricky operation, at least in my book. Please recall they had earlier secured the sawn off portion of the top of the broken pole holding the wires. You can see they have that secured on the left side of the photo with their equipment. Then just to the right is the new pole going in. They are very close together, and the operator and men on the ground had to be careful not to disturb the sawn pole with the wires on it.

Once the new pole was in place, they had to secure her with new guide wires, and they had to pick up the wires from the street, which they found to be in good shape, transfer the wires from the sawn off portion of the old pole to the new pole, and tighten up the tension on all of it --- lots of work.

Unfortunately, I had to leave as this process went on. About an hour later, our electricity came back on. I did return the next day to look at a job well done. I have to comment here that when I returned home, our electricity was still out. But I took great comfort having watched these guys at work. I told the family we'd have power shortly, and sure enoough, we did.


This is the pole down the street that withstood the fall of the tree but whose wires were ripped off the pole up the street. This is at the corner of Crocker and 11th.


This is what is left of the fallen tree. All the chunks had been removed along with the debris, and the street was pretty darn clean.


There's the new pole standing tall again, all wires connected up and down the street and across the street.


This is a closer look at the top part of the new pole. I wanted you to see the hardware that had to be installed to hold the crisscrossing wires. Focus on the three wires running through some hardware on the right side of the pole. You will recall you saw the Power Guy installing those three pieces of hardware on the pole while he was fitting her up.


This is lower down the new pole, where a second suite of wires is crisscrossing.


And there she is, in the ground.


Here's a look at the pole across the street. You can see she's receiving the wires from our new pole. This too is a busy pole, and seeing it now in her full regalia, you can better understand why the first responder stabilized her wires as his first order of business.

By the way, I did want to show you these two shots.


There has been some terrific design work done to configure the trucks used by the Power Guys. They've got more stuff stored in this truck than you can shake a stick at. Here's a closer look.


As a layman who served with the Air Force, I can tell you that one notable sign of professionalism is that everything is lined up neatly where it belongs. Everything has its specific storage place. This helps the Power Guys find what they need quickly, and it also assures they have everything they need --- it's easy to inventory back at the station when the have to replenish for the next call.

Go into a large storage warehouse, and you'll see all the stuff lined up, tagged, and inventoried --- that's how they can deliver what they need to deliver when they need to, with no chaos. The USAF lines up its aircraft at an air base the same way. Every jet in its place, lined up with all the others geometrically, waiting to be repaired, checked, and flown. The same idea holds in a hospital emergency room --- the doctors and techs need to have quick access to whatever they need, and that means the stuff has to be where they expect it to be. If you see stuff strewn about, you know you're working with an unprofessional outfit. That's my rule of thumb.

At the risk of beating all this to death, I thought there might be some others out there, especially students, who would want to get a little technical about all this.


Over on Crocker Street this day, we were looking at part of a power grid, a part that had broken down because a tree fell on transmission wires and broke a section of the system down. Not everyone in the neighborhood was affected, just some sections of this "mini-grid."

At the top of the pecking order there is some kind of plant, whether coal, nuclear, or hydroelectric, generating a lot of electricity. That electricity is very high voltage and flows along those huge towers you see out in rural areas known as extra high voltage units. They are part of a vast transmission grid that moves very large flows of electrical current to factories and into distribution grids, which in turn moves electricity in smaller volumes and scaled down in terms of power to neighborhoods, usually through transformers which usually decrease the voltage of the electricity to make it useful and safe in homes and small businesses.

Next time you see the Power Guys, give 'em a happy smile, a thank you and salute to boot!