George Robbins was raised as a country boy in the vicinity of Edgar Springs, but closer to Duke, Mo. He works for Rolla Municipal Utilities as a journeyman lineman. What's it like to do his job, holding a thousand watts of electricity in his hands?
George Robbins was raised as a country boy in the vicinity of Edgar Springs, but closer to Duke, Mo. Married to wife Lori with three children. Wayne is 6 yrs., Glen is 4 yrs. and Emma will soon be two yrs.-old.
He comes from a hard-working family. His father worked on the roads and bridges crew for Phelps County for 29 years and they raised cattle and goats.
Out of high school, George went to work in a sawmill in Licking for four years. He started stacking slabs and later operated the saw to cut dimensional lumber to build pallets for the logistics market in Kansas City. Then he worked as a heavy equipment operator for nine years at Havin Material Service, a sand and gravel business just south of Yancy Mills. That operation closed in 2007 and he commuted to a similar operation in St. Clair, at the Virginia Mines Division of Havin. The commute wore him down, so after a year, he started looking for something closer to home. Through some country boy networking, he heard about an opening at Rolla Municipal Utilities from a couple of employees.
“It’s quite a jump from pulling levers [of heavy excavating equipment] to going to work on the line,” said George. He said he knew enough about electricity to keep from getting a big electrical shock.
“But that’s about it,” he deadpanned. “12 volts was about my limit. Now I work with thousands of volts.”
“I provide a service—one that has now become a vital service,” said George. “The hospital, the schools . . . we’ve become dependent on constant electricity. It’s good to know I’m part of making that happen.”
He’s a journeyman lineman now, but it was a hefty learning curve to tackle for the previous eight years. As an apprentice lineman, there were four years of line school which was a combination of working next to experienced linemen and after-hours book study followed up with written tests. His first job was rolling up wire that the linemen in buckets had cut down from the poles.
“The wire was cold (no charge), so they knew I could handle that,” he said, grinning. His next step was working in a two-man ariel bucket. That’s a great time of learning because you’re working with a journeyman who has seen a lot in his 10 or 12 years as a lineman.
Q: What is the number one thing relating to safety you think about when working near hot wires?
A: Hot gloves. They separate the hot line from my body.
Most would probably find that extremely unnerving, but George takes it in stride. He says those heavy rubber gloves have to be checked, because”if they have a hole, that energy will find it.”
(George refers to an elbow or shoulder bumping up against something that could ground you, making your body a good conductor for electricity current to flow.)
It’s looking for a place work, so the intended [place] would be a lightbulb—not me!
Even in a two-man insulated bucket (that keeps the workers protected), you have to be aware of your (space) clearances—an inch is as good as a mile.
Q: What else?
A: We have all kinds of safety equipment now that prevent us from getting hurt.
It’s mind over matter, to say I’ve put all my safeguards in place and now I can do my job.
It’s a mental focus that says when I’m on the ground, I have to start getting prepared mentally to be aware of the hazard that’s above me where I’m going to start working. Whether it’s a transformer or an underground feed—you can’t see what’s taking place there—you have to prepare your mind to put everything into play that could happen, to eliminate the danger. You have to remain on guard because it can be something that happens a long ways down the line that can get you. That’s why the gloves have to be on, the safety googles, hardhat and harnesses. Now, we also wear rubber sleeves which eliminate the possibility of touching something [that could ground you and be electrocuted]. In hot weather, it can be punishing, but it is a safety precaution and they work.
Q: You have spoken about the mental acuity you need to be a linesman and your safety equipment. Lets talk about the troubleshooting process.
A: It’s all about information. I have to understand the problem before I can get it fixed. It could be a transformer that’s out. On some of our older systems, the line can break from storm damage, but most of the time, a line can be damaged, the substation “sees” a fault [in the line] and it opens up [to create a break in the circuit]. That’s why your lights blink. The substation will attempt to close the circuit three times, before it completely locks itself out (quits trying to make a connection—a safety feature).
Q: What are other skills besides the ability to focus, troubleshoot and be in physical shape that a linesman needs?
A: RMU is a collective—we work water and electricity. You might say, “those two don’t mix do they?” No, they don’t, but on the weekend or at night, I might be called out because we’ve got a water main break. Having been a heavy equipment operator, I can use those skills to dig down and find a main water line. We have to work together. The guys that work water may be called in to help a line crew—it’s just part of what happens at RMU and we understand that. On the day before the ice storm, everybody—the meter readers—everybody was preparing to get ready for what was coming. It’s a collective conscious that says “if we have a problem, we’ve got to get it fixed.”
You have to be able to endure the elements and get with it when you think you haven’t got anything left—that’s vital. You work your eight hours on the line and then you come home and say to yourself “I hope Rolla’s holding together tonight.” The phone can ring and it doesn’t matter how cold or hot it is, or if it’s storming, we head out again. I’ve come through some pretty rough weather just to get here (in Rolla) at times.
Q: What would you tell a young person that may not be going to college or maybe they’re a college graduate without current employment, about working at RMU?
A: We were at the high school a few weeks ago at a professional day trying to encourage young people to think about a career [at RMU]. If they know they can apply at RMU and be willing to work, they have an opportunity. We talked about what’s needed and I would encourage anyone to give it a try. At times, what I was learning was a little bit overwhelming, but I tell people, “If George Robbins can do this job, anyone can do this job.”
Q: Anything else you want to mention about RMU?
A: Just that I’m a servant to the people of Rolla. They might have just moved into town—well I’m working for them. If they don’t have power or water, they can call RMU and they’ll get ahold of somebody and we’ll come in and try to fix it the best we can—24/7.