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Linemen are rescuers, like firemen and EMTs

Crews from various companies line Route 1 in Bucksport on Christmas Day before clearing icy lines of limbs from the weekend storm.
Terry Farren | BDN
Crews from various companies line Route 1 in Bucksport on Christmas Day before clearing icy lines of limbs from the weekend storm.
Posted Dec. 26, 2013, at 11:44 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 26, 2013, at 2:16 p.m.
Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the Sun Journal in December 2008, after a series of ice storms plagued Maine. It’s republished here with permission, because although storms come and go, the linemen who work to restore power are always on the job.

As the emergency management director for Matinicus Isle Plantation, I don’t really have any duties. Basically, I have to know how to be in touch with the wider EMA world.

When the message went around during the recent ice storm that there were to be morning conference calls including the county emergency management directors, representatives of the utilities and the governor, we called in on behalf Matinicus Plantation Electric.

That’s where I first heard about the line crews coming from Michigan. I was immediately reminded of the “big” ice storm a decade ago, when linemen and bucket trucks from all over the continent rolled into the Northeast (and parts of Canada) to do what only they can do.

Matinicus Island was spared the brunt of both storms. This tiny community, located roughly 23 miles south of Rockland in the approach to Penobscot Bay, has its own municipal power company, with just over 100 meters, a sometimes staggeringly high electricity rate tied to the fluctuating cost of diesel, and a 1979 bucket truck with a 42-foot boom. One part-time lineman, plant operator, trouble man, electrician and meter reader maintains our small system.

(He is formerly of Central Maine Power’s station repairs department, out of Canco Road, Portland. Anybody still there might remember him stopping regularly at Tony’s Donuts. When he left CMP to move to Matinicus, the guys all told him he was crazy. “You’re doing what? Nobody quits a utility job!”)

It did feel a bit funny to be stringing Christmas lights in my island window while more than 200,000 ratepayers in Maine and 300,000 in New Hampshire were in the dark. It was only the chance direction of the weather pattern that kept our lights on; we never got any heavy icing.

Instead, we had people calling from the mainland to get their questions answered, as we had Internet. From Biddeford: “Is the Magic of Christmas still on tonight?” From Castine: “Do we have classes at Maine Maritime tomorrow?” From Exeter, NH: “How widespread is this power outage? Is it just us?”

Anyway, here, where 40-70 knot gusts are commonplace all winter, our old bucket truck does see its share of emergency duty. Islanders come out with chainsaws and work with the power company to help clear downed trees. Generally, power outages here are remarkably brief. During the storm just before Thanksgiving, a tree fell down on lines and caught fire; luckily somebody heard it “snap,” saw what happened and reported it right away. In a few minutes they had the electricity turned off, cleared the tree safely, preventing forest fire as well as power failure, removed some other trees threatening to fall on lines, and got everything back on in slightly over an hour. Sometimes it’s great to be a small system.

So, to back up a little, when I was on the conference call with the state EMA and the people from CMP, Bangor Hydro, Maine Public Service, Eastern Maine Electric, FairPoint and so on, it was a bit satisfying to peep in with “Matinicus Plantation Electric is all good.” Somebody off in the distance muttered “Glad to hear it.”

Maybe my admiration for those who almost literally handle our electricity comes from that I am genuinely interested in what they do. If I were just starting out, but somehow magically had the perspective that I do now, I could see myself doing that job.

No job for a woman? Hmm. I still say “lineman” the way I still say “sternman,” right or wrong, but perhaps you understand. I still look at the people up there in the bucket trucks through the eyes of a child who is, to be frank, impressed.

The photographs on the front pages of Maine newspapers showing the ice-storm linemen at work make me proud. They should be considered among our rescuers, along with firemen and EMTs (I am an EMT, so I get to say that.) They, the power company employees, will not say this; they will explain that they are simply doing their job. That is the usual disclaimer of work-a-day heroes. Coming from out of state, working extended hours in bitter weather, dealing with dangers of a job few observe with understanding is more than just “showing up for work.”

If you know a lineman, or anybody else out dealing with the mess, thank them. I’m not being romantic; I’ve been assured that these guys aren’t saints, and are very regular people quite without halos. Still, when the ice hits (and we all know it will happen again) they are out there working to get “normal life” back on for us in the face of some powerful forces of nature.

To the linemen, be you knuckle-dragging apes or eagle scouts, from Maine, Michigan, Canada or wherever, we say “thank you.” You are ice-storm heroes.

Eva Murray, of Matinicus, is a 1985 graduate of Bates College, a columnist for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine and an occasional contributor to the Bangor Daily News. E-mail: murray@midcoast.com.

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