This is a continuation of The Jefferson Post’s weekly series “What Makes Ashe Great.” It’s a regular look at the places, businesses, events and people that make Ashe County a great place to call home.
WARRENSVILLE-From the cab of his Toyota pickup, Blue Ridge Electric’s Mike Kincaid slowly traced a newly repaired power line with his eyes as he eased the vehicle down Rich Hill Road on Feb. 24.
“It’s tough because you can sometimes lose sight of the line through the trees,” Kincaid said. “But you’re basically looking to see that everything is right after they put tension on the line again and make sure nothing is close to the line.”
An operations manager for Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation’s Ashe district, Kincaid and a team of BREMCO line technicians offered The Jefferson Post an up-close view at just what it takes to keep the lights on for the co-operative’s more than 74,000 members.
And BREMCO likely couldn’t have chosen a much better day than Feb. 24. Weeks of heavy snow and several days of recent rain had left the ground saturated throughout the co-op’s service area, which includes Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Alexander, Caldwell, Watauga and Wilkes Counties.
That set the table for punishing winds to topple trees across power lines throughout the district which left more than 1,000 Ashe customers without power beginning early on the morning of Feb. 24.
“But that’s what these guys are here for, what they train for,” Kincaid said. “Yes we’re working and preparing all year long but it’s what happens when the lights actually go out – that’s when people sit up and take notice.”
At least two BREMCO line crews were dispatched to Rich Hill Road in Warrensville shortly after 9 a.m. on Feb. 24, after a small poplar tree fell and damaged a power line. Despite the cold rain and swirling winds, the teams repaired a damaged section of line and moved on to their next task in under an hour.
It’s Kincaid’s job to help his technicians best coordinate their repair efforts to make sure the lights stay on – and everybody goes home at the end of their shift.
“You’ve got to be focused on what you’re doing – right at that moment,” Kincaid said. “Because safety is absolutely paramount. You have to work quickly because people are depending on you, but these guys have to stay safe above everything else.”
And while BREMCO’s technicians likely play the largest role in turning the lights back on when the weather turns them off, the co-operative has invested in technology to help it identify problems before they start.
The company’s automatic meter reading system allows it to generate a report every five days that allows Kincaid and others BREMCO leaders to see exactly when and where small power interruptions – think of the kind of outage that resets the clock on your kitchen stove – take place.
If those small “blinks” become a pattern, it can help Kincaid and company can figure out their next steps in certain areas, he said.
And year-round, that work includes line clearing efforts designed to keep trees and plants away from BREMCO’s infrastructure. BREMCO Line Technician Greg Lipford said the company annually clears more than 200 miles of lines in Ashe County each year.
Lipford, an Ashe County native and Northwest Ashe High School graduate, described working for BREMCO as his dream job.
He said he realized shortly after graduating high school he’d never be able to make a living farming so he turned his sights on line work. He put his application in with BREMCO but took a job with a local electrical contractor to learn the tricks of the trade.
“But I always turned to Blue Ridge and always kept my eye open for an opportunity,” Lipford said. “I just kept waiting for a chance to get my foot in the door.”
Those efforts finally paid off – after 11 years, Lipford said. He was ultimately hired by Blue Ridge in Watauga nearly three years ago and later transferred to Ashe County when a job came open.
“It’s interesting work, and it’s fun work but sometimes, man, you’ve got to look around at 3 a.m. and wonder, ‘What am I doing here?” Lipford laughed. “But honestly there are way more good days than bad.”
Lipford said the biggest misconception about line technicians? That they only earn their pay when the weather turns rough.
“That’s when everybody takes notice, I guess,” Lipford said. “But there are a lot of days and nights spent on right-of-ways and cold little hole on the side of the road where folks don’t see what goes on. But really, there’s nothing like being up in a bucket when the wind is pushing the trees this way and the line that way.”
Lipford described the BREMCO “family” dynamic – a highly-trained team of men and women who truly appreciate their job – as one of the best parts of his job.
“You know if you can stay healthy you’re going to have a job everyday,” Lipford said. “But the members, they’ll tell you they appreciate you – and that’s nice, too.”
The fact that Lipford spent more than a decade trying to score a job with BREMCO also motivates him to pass on advice to young people considering a career with the co-operative.
He encouraged students to apply for BREMCO’s summer intern program as a way to see if a job with the co-operative fits their interests, and to consider attending Caldwell Community College’s Electrical Lineman Institute.
“But when you get out of school, be humble and realize that’s when you’re really going to start learning,” Lipford said. “If you can’t get on here, you can learn a lot with a contractor. Focus on being safe and waiting for an opportunity. There’s not a lot of turnover but you get a chance if you’re patient. It’s worth it.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.