What started as a morning trip to set a power pole turned into a water rescue in Eastern Oregon’s Umatilla National Forest for two Columbia Power Cooperative employees last June.
From the curvy two-lane Highway 395, apprentice lineman Garrett Warner spotted something unusual bobbing in the current of Camas Creek. Personal items drifting through the water told him trouble was around the notoriously tight curve ahead.
Down the 15- to 20-foot embankment, a Kia minivan had rolled, landing on its side in the middle of the frigid creek. The vehicle’s passenger had made it safely to shore wet and cold, but the 69-year-old driver and her dog remained in the minivan and in danger of hypothermia.
Garrett dialed journeyman lineman Jack Jewell, who was ahead in a separate truck. Once united, they removed their boots, tied off with a hand line and entered the quickly moving water—chest deep—to bring the woman and her dog safely to shore before an ambulance arrived.
“That’s the second time one of our guys has come up on a wreck on Camas Creek,” Garrett says. “Another guy rolled up on one three or four winters ago.”
Electric utility work is known for danger. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked linework as the 10th most dangerous civilian occupation based on a fatal work injury rate of 22 people per 100,000 employees in 2021. But on their routes and in their service territories, those who do the work often provide everything from a lifeline to a helping hand in trying times.
The first called for any and all outages—including from fires and collisions—lineworkers brace for the unknown in their workdays.
“We have a job where we have to be prepared to kick it into gear and do what we’re trained to do,” Garrett says. “What we do is always hazardous, so we try to do it as safely as possible.”
Lineworker water rescues may be few and far between for Columbia Power, but General Manager Lisa Atkin says helping people in their hour of need isn’t.
“My linemen do spend many hours on our roads due to the broad geographical service territory we cover as a cooperative and can sometimes be found stopping to help assist with road traffic accidents, breakdowns, people who have gotten lost, etc.,” she says. “Given the rugged terrain we operate in and during harsh weather conditions, it is to be expected. Our crews are appropriately prepared and trained to lend a hand to others found struggling in our communities.”
Sometimes the help of a lineworker is for one of their own. Such was the case at Escambia River Electric Cooperative on a hot Florida day in Escambia County a few years ago.
Lineworker David Deese was working on lines from the bucket when he began to feel dehydrated and generally unwell. As he began to lower himself, he lost consciousness and fell to the bottom of the bucket.
Then-foreman Glenn White, now the cooperative’s director of operations, sprang into action with help from others. The bucket was lowered the rest of the way. Once a safety clip was attached to David, he was pulled from the bucket.
“I can’t thank these guys enough for helping me out that day,” David says. “The linemen are like family. You literally have to trust each other with your life.”
Trusting a lineworker with her life was the farthest thing from Patti Shepherd’s mind last December when she called in what she thought was a mere power outage in Bend, Oregon.
It was the coldest night of the season yet. She called Central Electric Cooperative to report the outage at her home and, planning an early rise the next morning, went to bed.
But when CEC apprentice lineman Scott Maxwell pulled up in his truck that night, darkness wasn’t all he noticed about the home.
“My headlights are shining on the garage, and I could see the garage steaming,” he recalls. “There’s no flames. There’s no smoke rolling out of anything. The roof was steaming, and the snow was melting on the roof.
“As I opened the door on the truck, the smell hit me: It’s not steam—this thing is on fire.”
CEC Serviceman Chris Laite pulled up shortly after. While he dialed 911, Scott started banging on the door to alert Patti.
Her shrieking dog, Ellie, helped rouse her. Patti handed Chris a leash with her other dog, Bug, a 128-pound Rottweiler, and one strong directive: “Be nice to my dog.” She then scurried out the door with Ellie.
“I’m in my slippers. I’m in my bathrobe. That’s all there is to it,” Patti says.
Scott deenergize the house so firefighters could get to work knocking down the blaze. Despite the initial douse with minimal damage to the property, the fire reignited hours later. Patti lost everything.
“It was like I was in a cloud,” she says. “It just took a long time to come to reality that it’s gone. You don’t see the fire. You don’t see the smoke. But you do see the results that there’s nothing there.”
Patti is grateful for the quick response of Chris and Scott.
“They weren’t afraid to help someone,” she says. “That’s the art of love. The art of being human and caring.”
For the lineworkers, it’s part of the commitment to their work.
“It’s probably a combination of everything—the way you’re raised, the training, the humanity factor,” Chris says. “When something’s going on, you do what you can to make the situation better.”
Fur-midable Climb Ends Safely for Rescued Cat
Around Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative in Port Orford, Oregon, lineworker Tom Gastonguay has an alias as “Tom-Cat” after saving a feline from a power pole.
Last fall, the utility that serves nearly 14,000 members across Coos and Curry counties received a dispatch call about a cat on top of a pole in Brookings. Along with fellow lineworker David Nelson, Tom was sent to make the rescue.
From inside a bucket, Tom worked to build trust with the animal, enticing it with beef jerky. When he could get close enough to safely pick it up, he placed the cat into the bucket and brought it down to safety.