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Power Pros: Shedding Light on the Unsung Heroes

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Originally published in the 2018 edition of Local Heroes, a supplement printed annually by The Forest-Blade which features profiles of firemen, policemen, EMS workers, past and current armed service members, and others in like professions in Emanuel County, Georgia.


Life is a series of collected moments and experiences that we gather over the course of time. It’s more about the quality of life than the height of the climb.

We are more than 100,000 strong, but together, we act as one. We walk the line whether hurricanes, tornadoes, rain, wind, or sun. Our main mission is to protect the grid, even if one of us meets our maker. We are linemen. It is what we do, the credo we chant. You are your brother’s keeper. — Beau Ginner, Life on the Line (2015)

The Brotherhood

It’s a brief exchange but telling nonetheless. Rashan Gibbons is exiting the office of The Forest-Blade around 1:05 p.m. on Saturday, November 17. He’s just finished an interview about working as a lineman. We small-talk from my office down the hall to the front door, and part of that conversation reveals that Stephen Burke, who is waiting outside, is here for the same reason.

They’re complete strangers, Rashan and Stephen, but their passing each other and a short conversation which ensues in the process reveals otherwise—they’re brothers. To paraphrase:

“Hey, man! How’s it going?” one says as he extends his hand. “I’m Stephen.”

“I’m Rashan. So you’re a lineman?”

“That’s right. I’m with Altamaha EMC. What about you?”

“I’m with Jefferson.”

They comment how much they’re enjoying their line of work and respective employers. The bond between them is instantaneous and solid. When the inevitable goodbye comes just moments later, they know how to end their conversation.

“You be careful out there,” Stephen says. Rashan returns a curt nod and wishes his new friend the same because that’s the entire essence of life on the line.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes

When we think of our local heroes, our train of thought often defaults to the elderly gentleman who dons a Vietnam War cap as he sips his morning coffee at Huddle House. Other times, we think of the policeman who makes a big arrest. Of course we remember the firefighter who barrels into a burning home to try to save it. For whatever reason, our first thought of a hero isn’t usually a lineman, but maybe we should make an effort to change that. After all, what else would you call the brave men and women who literally light up the world after it’s gone dark?

For Rashan and Stephen, it’s just another day in the life. While it’s not something they’re comfortable with, they’ve become accustomed to being overlooked and perhaps even underappreciated by the general public, especially when part of the grid is down. Ask any other lineman and they’ll probably tell you the same thing.

But linemen don’t do it for the glory. If they did, we would stay powerless. No, instead they stand in the darkest parts of the world with the toughest of work cut out for them, weather the storm, and put the lights back on because somebody has to, and the responsibility is all theirs.

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Two Men, Two Routes to Line Work

On paper, Stephen and Rashan couldn’t be more different. Neither could their stories about becoming linemen.

Rashan is 29. He grew up in Swainsboro, graduated from Swainsboro High in 2008, and attended East Georgia College. He and his wife, Brittany Gibbons, have one daughter, Lyndsey.

Stephen, on the other hand, is just 24-years-old. His hometown is Twin City, and he graduated from Emanuel County Institute in 2014, then went on to receive a certificate from Southeastern Technical College in residential and commercial wiring. He is the son of Regina Hughes and Stephen Cheeks.

One of the two men said he knew from a considerably early age he wanted to be a lineman. “From the time I was a child, I knew what I wanted to be. Seeing guys working on the side of the road, I’d always say, ‘Oh, man! I want to do that right there!’ It worked out just fine for me. I’m living out my dream,” Rashan said about his career choice. He started as a groundman with Sumter Utilities, got his commercial driver’s license, and worked his way up to a lineman. Just over three years later, he took a job with Jefferson, and he says today he doesn’t plan on going elsewhere.

Stephen, on the other hand, had no intention of becoming a lineman. “When I was in school at the tech, I got a phone call from one of my advisors telling me that Altamaha EMC wanted to interview me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing this line of work. I was in awe! One thing led to another, the cards played out right, and I’ve been with them 2.5 years now. I’m grateful they gave me the opportunity.” He, too, plans to stay the course, become a journeyman, and retire from Altamaha.

The Daily Grind

Though they work for different companies, their daily routines are somewhat synonymous. Both Jefferson and Altamaha (as well as every other power company) put safety above anything else, so the first item of business is vehicle inspection. Flying the booms, checking the outriggers, and ensuring the integrity of every part of their trucks is foremost every morning. They then meet with their supervisors, get their schedules, and head out to their job sites, where they spend their days building power for new homes, retiring old lines, changing transformers, or other like responsibilities. In the freezing cold and unbearable summer heat, they’re running buckets and climbing poles to keep our power on.

When the Thunder Rolls

Of course, the most notable albeit dangerous part of their job happens as the forecast deteriorates. Storm duty brings a much larger paycheck, but the associated risks lessen the monetary reward.

The most memorable storm Rashan can recall is Storm Pax, a winter system that left Atlanta and much of Georgia in the dark for days in January 2014. “Pax stands out because we worked in snow, ice, and water. I remember ice being 2” thick on the pole. I had to beat it off, climb a little, beat it off, climb a little more. I had just gotten started, and I couldn’t even warm up. It was miserable, but I learned a lot from that particular storm.” Throughout his years, he’s worked in multiple other states, too, including Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, both of the Carolinas, and as far west as Arizona.

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Stephen, in the infancy of his career, has yet to build such a lengthy list of places he’s been, but he’s paid his dues. He’s worked three major hurricanes: Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, and Michael just this year. “The hours are long, but it’s a different kind of ‘worth it.’ We might put 100 households on when we do our normal work, but during storm duty, we put thousands on at a time,” the young lineman said. “When we worked Hurricane Irma, we worked Monday through Saturday. I think we logged somewhere between 126 and 130 hours in one week. Battling the mental exhaustion is way harder, in my opinion, than the physical part, but the internal drive to do what you have to do gets you through it.”

A Missing Virtue

Of course, the degree of mental difficulty is multiplied by impatience. Today’s instantaneous world is driven by technology, which, in turn, is made possible by power. When the lights fail, so do our iPhones, showers, stoves, televisions, and everything in between. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize what the process of turning the lights back on really entails.

“I’ve actually met people while on storm duty who think it’s just the push of a button,” Stephen said. He told a story about one encounter in which a hostile woman hounded him about when her home would be powered up again. “All I could do in that moment was take off my hard hat and try to hand it to her. She ended up apologizing and driving off, but I didn’t even say a word. You can’t really say what you want to because it might come back to bite you in the end, but it’s hard not to reply in some kind of way when we’re trying as hard as we can.”

Not only is the impatience motivated by inaccessibility to many facets of daily life, but more often than not, the consumers also don’t distinguish the linemen from the bill they receive in the mail.

“I think we’re kind of like the behind-the-scenes guys. We aren’t really talked about as much compared to other emergency response people. In fact, sometimes we’re seen as the bad guys because we don’t do our jobs fast enough for some people,” Rashan said.

But he also admits it’s getting better, slowly but surely. Thanks to a new piece of legislature, linemen are now considered first responders in the eyes of the law. He hopes that the public will become more patient as education about their livelihood trickles its way through society.

High Demand for Linemen

According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2017, there are only approximately 116,000 linemen in the entire country. Georgia accounts for 6,450 of those workers. There’s only time and opportunity for people who want to work in the field; the demand for linemen is plentiful. In fact, some power companies will send future employees to lineman school if the candidate seems to be a good, promising fit. Stephen is a prime example. The problem lies in the fact that many people simply don’t want to be linemen because of the dangers the work brings, nor do their loved ones want them to go down that career path.

When Stephen told his parents he was thinking about becoming a lineman, they were proud but worried. So was Rashan’s mother. Line wives have similar thoughts as their husbands pull out of the driveway to go to work every day, not just for storm duty.

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The thought process itself is understandable. Jefferson Energy, for example, works with power lines that run 7,200 or 14,400 voltage. The ampage of those lines varies. One mistake, a single lapse of judgement, could be the difference between life and death, so telling the loved one of a lineman “not to worry” is a fool’s errand.

The alternative, however, is simple: change the mentality altogether. Being a lineman isn’t for the faint of heart. Being around all that electricity, according to Rashan, can be a little nerve-wracking at times, but that’s where safety protocols come into play.

“You’ve got to respect electricity. From our fire-resistant clothes and safety equipment to having a spotter on the ground who watches what you do at all times, we’ve got each other’s backs because if one of us makes a mistake, we all make a mistake,” said Rashan. “We’re extremely careful and take care of each other because when we do that, we all go home at the end of the day.”


So if being a lineman is so risky, why do they do it? It’s simple really. They’re fueled by an inherent passion. It’s almost as if linemen have electricity in their veins instead of blood.

“It’s hard to describe. I feel like I was born to do it,” Stephen said. “To be a lineman, you have to be a lot of things—dedicated, courageous, teachable, fearless—but the one thing that has to be there is the drive, the heart for the job.”

That intrinsic love for creating power and fixing lines is probably the best explanation for why there’s so little turnover in the profession, and with so little turnover, line crews often stay the same for years. They become family, and families have legacies.

“It’s a brotherhood for sure. Color doesn’t matter out here. We’re actually with each other more than we’re with our own families. There’s not very many of us out here, so we take a lot of pride in what we do,” Rashan explained.

And what they “do” is more than powering their neighbors’ houses, rather it’s empowering the world. When storm duty pulls them away from the safety of their homes and comfort of their families, they don’t go fix their own power first, then help whoever’s left in the dark. That’s not how it works. They leave their own situations to go help everyone else. In fact, that’s the best part of being a lineman, according to Rashan and Stephen.

“Knowing you’re a helping hand, knowing you can help someone that is in need… That’s what it’s really about,” said Rashan. “I feel like I make a real difference because without power, you don’t have anything. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”

Stephen agrees wholeheartedly. He has a Thank A Lineman license plate on his pick-up, and when he knocks off every day, he trades his hard hat for a LiveWire cap. Line work is more than a job to him. It’s his life. “Being a lineman to me is doing for people before you even think about doing for yourself. Helping people means the world to me. When people need help, we don’t ask questions. We just go. I love being able to say I’m a lineman, and I hope it shows.”

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of Local Heroes. For more inspiring stories, visit Ratingperson.

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