Photo: Photo shows an orange bucket lift on the left extended over the conservator (center) on a transformer in Big Substation, South Dakota, where high- voltage electricians in the bucket lift man-basket prepare to perform maintenance.

The journeyman technician at WAPA has been trained and developed over the span of years.

By Paul Davis

Many WAPA employees are outdoor enthusiasts: hikers, fishermen, hunters and photographers. Following our outdoor interests, many of us use camouflaged clothing to blend in with our surroundings as we approach a game bird, fish or other wildlife. We trust the camo to (hopefully) help us remain unseen to our target.

Thousands of hours of research and development have gone into the camo patterns we wear today. High-quality materials stop wind and rain yet barely make a sound.

Similarly, the journeyman technician at WAPA has been trained and developed over the span of years. We invest thousands of dollars in each of these employees’ skills development, and we trust and depend on them to perform under pressure and in extreme conditions.

The apprentice’s way

It normally starts with an apprenticeship, a four-year program focused on education in a particular craft. Later, the successful apprentice will continue to acquire skills on the job to keep up with the ever-increasing journeyman requirements.

We execute the four-year apprentice program under the watchful eye of a full and successful journeyman on the crew. Both a foreman and manager typically work together to appoint the full journeyman who oversees the new apprentice.

This mentor plays an important role in training an apprentice, not only in the skills of high-voltage maintenance, but also in attitude and service-mindedness. After four years in the program, we hold a graduation ceremony to recognize the successful progression from apprentice to full journeyman.

All four crafts – linemen, electricians, meter and relay, and communications – use the apprentice program to acquire, develop and maintain a consistently trained and qualified workforce. Additionally, WAPA’s two-year Craftsman-in-Training program enables journeymen in one craft to gain formal training in a different craft, allowing the workforce to expand its skills and knowledge.

Growing on the job

After acquiring the skills of their craft, the new journeyman begins actual training on the live power system. The journeyman will now be able to make power system decisions, such as taking on the roles of clearance holder, clearance requestor or acting foreman. They can take “callouts” to maintenance jobs in the field and report back to the foreman with accurate data.

WAPA’s skilled journeymen make up the backbone of our workforce. As a transmission power provider, WAPA relies on them to maintain the power system. Whether identifying an issue or executing scheduled maintenance, journeymen request a clearance, general, hotline order or authorization to work, and they set to work maintaining and improving our system.

Lingo lesson: Typical maintenance requests

  • Clearance – provides protection against energization from sources of primary system energy. A clearance protects employees.
  • General – switching used for sectionalizing lines or rearranging system equipment. General switching does not provide protection.
  • Hotline order – used to request work on equipment that remains energized and, if a fault occurs, prevents the circuit from reenergizing during the work.
  • Authorization to work – provides information to the system operator regarding all work performed on power system equipment.

Knowing which of those methods to use and how to acquire it is a special skill. For example, if the job required it, a journeyman electrician could request a clearance to protect themselves and other employees while working in a substation on a circuit breaker.

Formal documentation ensures that journeymen and dispatchers follow the switching steps exactly in sequence, which deenergizes the section of the substation without dropping power to customers.

A seasoned journeyman knows very well the importance of the clearance. The clearance stands between them and an energized power system. Without a clearance, a journeyman can’t hang personal protective grounds, and without grounds crews can’t safely work on the power system.

A typical journeyman’s day

Take a lineman, for example. On any given day, a journeyman in this craft will show up at the shop at 6:30 a.m., get their working assignment for the day from the foreman, then load their work truck with the necessary supplies and head down the road to the job site. Whether working alone, such as line patrol, or as a crew member working under a clearance, their day will be spent out in the power system.

Historical WAPA photo of Maintenance workers harnessed up and working on the transmission system near Glendive, Montana.
Historical WAPA photo of Maintenance workers harnessed up and working on the transmission system near Glendive, Montana.

Their crew might replace a crossarm, broken insulator, frayed conductor or even a pole. The crew may need several pieces of heavy equipment, so they drive the needed equipment down the right of way to access the structure under repair.

Once onsite or at the office, the foreman will lead a tailgate meeting covering the job parameters, review and answer questions about the job hazard analysis, discuss the expected dangers on their particular job, assign tasks and decide who will switch at each location.

Depending on the job, the crew may need a clearance to protect those on the power system. The foreman will request a clearance and assign the switchmen. They drive to the switch location, contact dispatch, read back the switching steps and wait for direction to switch. When the system is switched and ready for a clearance, the job supervisor will receive the clearance.

Once the dispatcher issues the clearance and points of protection are identified and discussed with everyone working inside the bounds of the clearance, the linemen will verify that the line is deenergized, then hang their protective grounds and begin the work.

The foreman directs journeymen to carry out the necessary repairs following the safety guidelines they know by heart and shielded by their personal protective equipment. They often rely on complex rigging or bucket trucks to reach broken or aging equipment.

When they’ve completed the repair, the crew drops the grounds and releases the clearance, in that order. Finally, they clean up the area and drive on to the next job, or they head back to the shop by 5 p.m.

A crew installed equipment this fall at Big Substation in South Dakota, which included using a crane and manlifts to service this live tank circuit breaker.
A crew installed equipment this fall at Big Substation in South Dakota, which included using a crane and manlifts to service this live tank circuit breaker.

Building bridges across functions

WAPA’s craftsmen are the employees who touch the transmission system; all crafts work together harmoniously so they can achieve WAPA’s mission. Without the journeyman workforce, WAPA cannot safely provide reliable, cost-based hydropower and transmission to customers and the communities they serve.

The next time you see a WAPA technician, take a minute and get to know them, introduce yourself and explain your job. It will be surprising to each of you how important your jobs are to completing the mission. Support employees play equally important roles as field technicians when it comes to “Serving like your lights depend on it.”

Open communication and mutual respect will only improve our work environment and make us all better at our jobs. While much remains to be done, let’s continue to improve the workplace culture and strive to build the WAPA community within and beyond the job site. Be a positive representative for WAPA and help others on their journey as well.

Trust in the field

You can’t get a good closeup picture of a whitetail deer in its natural environment if it knows you’re there. We trust our camo to accomplish this task.

Likewise, trust and rely on the journeymen to get their jobs done, rainstorm or sunshine, 24/7/365. Their teamwork, camaraderie and safety culture build bonds of trust with each other and the wider workforce. We thank them for their dedicated service and for coming back safely from each job well done.

Note: The author is a foreman II electrician.

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Last modified on June 12th, 2024