People who have endured long power outages in the wake of hurricanes or tornadoes applaud lineworkers. Some even call them heroes.
Curt Cunningham, who has been working on hundreds of miles of distribution and transmission lines for Gulf Power since 1991, flashes a smile and laughs at the thought. But he admits lineworkers do feel a sense of triumph when they make repairs and see the sparkle of lights springing back to life across a neighborhood.
“Sometimes we do feel like a hero because we are the people our customers see and come out and thank when we get the lights back on,” said Cunningham, a Gulf Power Transmission lineworker who works out of the Milton Office. “But there are a whole lot of other people behind that crew who help get the lights on.”
Despite the nod to a large Gulf Power transmission and distribution team supporting lineworkers, Cunningham and his 182 colleagues are the first responders. When the lights go out, they can be called on in the middle of the night and in all sorts of weather to make repairs and restore power. Their mantra is to do the work “as safely and quickly as possible.”
Line work is considered among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the world. After the Florida House of Representatives designated Aug. 26, 2012 Lineworker Appreciation Day, utilities across the state observe that day annually to honor the thousands of men and women who risk their lives every day to ensure customers receive reliable energy 24/7, 365 days a year.
Cunningham was attracted to the industry at an early age, despite the inherent dangers. His father, Royce, once worked on a Gulf Power line crew and often talked about the job and the men he worked with.
“My dad was a big influencer, and I always looked up to this trade and the men who worked in it,” said Cunningham. “I was already in the electrical trade, and for me, this was the career to shoot for.”
He worked as an electrician and earned a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice from the University of West Florida before joining Gulf Power, and working in distribution –– the segment of the power grid that feeds homes and businesses. His first set of climbing tools were his father’s, and he learned the work on the job from the veterans.
“A lot of things have changed in my 26 years,” he pointed out. For instance, safety measures have improved and newly recruited lineworkers have comprehensive training that includes diet and fitness education and a seven-year apprenticeship.
The married father of two grown daughters spent half of his career working on the distribution in Pace, Milton and Gulf Breeze. He did his share of storm duty –– heading out into the aftermath of a hurricane, tropical storm, tornado or ice storm to repair the electric grid and restore power. That duty often requires days and weeks working long hours. Gulf Power lineworkers even travel to neighboring communities and out of state to assist other utility companies with storm restoration.
About 12 years ago, he became a transmission lineworker. He’s one of 10 who works on the high voltage lines and towers that transport power from generation facilities to substations, which feed the distribution lines that serve Gulf Power’s customers.
“Transmission gave me the big picture view of the team that supports lineworkers. By having working relations with system controls, relay and protection, substation workers and engineers, you understand the scope of what goes into just changing out a support arm on a tower,” he said. “It’s a huge team our customers don’t see.”
Cunningham said he joined transmission at one of the most interesting times in Gulf Power’s history.
“I have been involved in one of the biggest investments in the transmission system the company has ever done — building new tie lines to Alabama, new lines from Pensacola to Panama City and upgrading transmission substations,” he said.
His team is also nearing completion of a huge, multi-year storm hardening project to replace every wooden arm —1,500 — on transmission towers with steel ones. Cunningham said the upgrade and other improvements Gulf Power has invested in the transmission system have reduced outages and improved power reliability. This leads to fewer of those middle-of-the-night calls for lineworkers to rush out and restore power, he said.
On a day-to-day basis, he travels some of the 1,667 miles of transmission lines in his utility truck from the Pensacola area east to Fort Walton Beach inspecting towers, poles and equipment for deterioration or damage.
The opportunity to be out in rural areas where many of the transmissions lines lace across fields, forests, swamps, rivers and bays is what he likes best about transmission work. “I cover a lot of territory and in a lot of remote areas,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges of transmission for some people, but for me, I love it.”
Sometimes to access those remote areas he and his team board boats and an amphibious tractor called a Marsh Master to go to work. That’s what they had to do during the holiday season a few years ago when a transmission tower spanning a river fell.
“I got a call at 2 a.m. that we had a transmission line out,” he said. “We started getting our crews in and picking up our boats and amphibious tractor. That’s the only way we could get out and see what was wrong. As soon as it was light enough before dawn for us to see, we were in the water.”
Whether it’s an emergency job or completing a storm-hardening project, Cunningham said what makes him enjoy his job is “at the end of the day you can look at what you’ve done and say, ‘there’s a job I completed.’
“And we may not always see the lights come back on when we’re working in remote areas, but we get that radio call confirming our work was a success,” Cunningham said. “You feel good.”