The Man Who Keeps the Lights On

Tim Miller, an electric-utility lineman, talks about what it’s like to be responsible for distributing his community’s power.

Tim Miller  (Rebecca Clarke )

In its early iterations in the 1800s, electricity was expensive and inconsistent. But fast-forward more than 150 years—as technology developed from Thomas Edison’s incandescent light to the energy-saving LED lights of today—and electric energy is indispensable in the day-to-day lives of most Americans. In 2014, the average American household spent about $114 on electricity per month.

But despite people’s reliance on it, the electric-utility industry performs dismally at times, especially in the wake of storms or natural disasters. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy millions of residents reported outages, for days in some cases. In those cases, utility workers are essential in returning power to homes.

Tim Miller, a line mechanic supervisor for American Electric Power (AEP) in Indiana, has seen how blackouts can affect a community. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Miller about the safety risks of his job, the role he plays in getting power to the homes where he lives, and how the changes in environmental regulations have influenced his job. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

Adrienne Green: What are your responsibilities as a lineman for AEP and what did you do on a day-to-day basis?

Tim Miller: I was just recently promoted to line-crew supervisor, so now I supervise a crew of mechanics that do the job that I used to do. Line work is more like a brotherhood of men that get together every day and evaluate the safety hazards of setting wooden poles. It could be steel or aluminum wire for the day. You’re trying to keep public safety in your mind as well when you're laying out the job and you're setting up trucks. It could be pretty overwhelming depending on the size of the job. On a typical day we would be show up at 7 a.m. for a pre-job brief with your crew to discuss the job is for the day. Then we load material for that job, get an address, and we would meet there to go over the safety spots, and then proceed with the safest, most efficient idea amongst the group.

Green: You work for an electricity provider. What is your role in actually getting people the power that they need?

Miller: We trouble shoot and then we make repairs when equipment malfunctions or it fails, it depends on what the issue is. It depends on what the job scope is. The process includes generation, transmission, and then distribution. My role is on the distribution side, where we deal with the delivery of the power to the customer. We're the last line that feeds from line to the houses and the businesses where the meters are.

Miller: I've seen it change because of the regulations that actually get pressed upon our company, by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and the federal government. I like to look things up when we're being told about them. This is our community, and we can better inform the people that are around us. Just recently, the EPA added some regulations that we had install scrubbers to lower sulfur-dioxide (SO2) emissions, which is a very, very expensive transition, and that's on the generation side of our company.

Not only that, we want to meet the needs of the customers as well. Once they make a new regulation, you can only imagine there's a cost-added effect to the power company and that effect gets handed down to the customer. You're going to have disgruntled customers because their bills are going up, maintenance of the lines cause the bill to go up. Sometimes you have to deal with maybe some rude people depending on the day they might have had. They're not at fault. They don't understand how it starts up in Congress and the Regulatory Commission.

Green: Describe the physical part of your job. Is you safety ever a concern to you?

Miller: Safety is the first thing we look at at every job. It's always on our mind, but the company has made sure that safety is at the top of the list in the training I’ve received. My wife and I have discussed this; the way I leave my front porch in the morning is exactly how my wife wants me to return home at night.

Depending on the job, obviously climbing would be one of the risks. I climb poles and I work on energized conductors. There are a lot of poles that are in what we call easements—they're behind houses and you can't get a truck or any equipment to it—so you would have to climb that pole to fix or replace any equipment. Another risk would be traffic. You can't control the folks who are behind the wheel when you are on the side of the road working. I'd like to think that everyone's paying attention when they're driving down the highway and they see our signs, but we've had some drivers that aren't paying attention and some of our sister corporations have had fatalities because of it. That's a huge safety factor when you're setting up your job with your crew for the day and when you're working. You're constantly thinking about where's my boom, is it out in the center of traffic, is it going to get hit by a semi if it goes by, and is it up high enough?

Green: What would you say are the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job?

Miller: The most challenging day at work I've ever experienced is when a gentleman died in the backyard [while I was working], and I resuscitated him with CPR that [the company] trained me to do. We had just gotten 26 inches of snow in Indiana, and we showed up at a residence where they were having power issues. They had an underground service feeding this house, and we went to test that underground equipment to find the fault. There's another utility service that locates wires that are in the ground. A gentleman was at that job site that morning to locate for his company. I told him we were going to go to the truck, and when I came back Dave's face down in the snow.

I yelled for him, but there was no response, so I dropped the shovels and ran over to him and flipped him over. He was totally lifeless. Locators carry a stick that has a paint can at the bottom of it, and when he landed it was spraying up into his nose and mouth. I had just been trained in CPR three weeks prior to this day. At that time, I began doing chest compressions and as I pushed on him he kept going down in the snow. I performed CPR for 8 minutes and 18 seconds.

He's alive and well today. That's the first instance here in the Fort Wayne service territory that a lineman has saved somebody else's life.

Green: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

Miller: Seeing smiles on customer's faces that we deal with every day. People come out, we're doing storm restoration or a little thunderstorm goes through and they're out of power and here comes the linemen. Lights are going and they show up. They are some of the most thankful and grateful individuals I have ever met in my life.

Green: Are storms and blackouts the most hectic times for you?

Miller: Yes, because it's usually after hours. You already work a regular 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift, and if a storm rolls in at 5 p.m., you could get called in and work all night. There is a rotating list, and they go down the list until they get the amount of individuals that they need to cover a call. In my first six months as an employee, Fort Wayne, Indiana, had a terrible ice storm. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life—below zero temperatures. There were thousands of people out of power. We worked for was two weeks, 16 hours a day. Community members could be freezing in their home.

Green: How is your work tied to your identity?

Miller: My work is tied to my identity because I love public service. When you see someone that you don't know, and you know in your heart that they can't do what you're doing. They’re helpless if you don’t show up.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a trash collector, a park ranger, and a paramedic.