Electricity sparks job contentment for Pacific Power's Gary DickGary Dick is a man who likes to mow his lawn. Sometimes, he'll even mow his neighbor's lawn. He finds there is just something relaxing about being on that mower and getting the grass cut.
He doesn't seem like the kind of man who lets 5,000 volts of electricity surge through his hands while protected only by rubber gloves.
But he's the one who will go out in a storm, precariously swinging 35 feet in the air to repair transformers, and who will tramp out in the mud to make sure that no one digs up underground lines. He's the one who leaves Christmas dinner steaming on his plate to turn the electricity back on.
Gary Dick is a lineman for Pacific Power.
Being a lineman is a hard job that requires dedication, energy and a stout spirit. Linemen are the people who brave strong winds, torrential rains and dark nights in order to get power lines reconnected and get the community's lights back on. They deal with raw power - often up to 7,200 volts. They also deal with the mundane - power pole maintenance, underground wire locates and street light repair, among other things. But when all is said and done, it is the linemen who keep the community out of the dark.
Easy to work with"He's the easiest guy to work with ... he doesn't complain when I make him busy," says Marilyn Brockey, an operations clerk with Pacific Power and Dick's co-worker for 16 years. It's Brockey's job to set up appointments for Dick and the other linemen, and she says he doesn't mind the work. "He would rather work all day than look for work," she says.
"It'd be really hard to say anything bad about him," Brockey says, laughing. "He's a hardworking employee and ... a good, old-fashioned country boy."
After growing up in Wheeler and living in Roseburg for a year, Dick, 50, moved to Astoria, where he's spent the last 28 years working with the lines.
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Gary Dick spends most of the time in the field doing maintenance and "call before digging" quick locates."I moved here because of the job, because Pacific Power was here," Dick says. "I liked the coast better than inland." He says that Pacific Power tends to have a high turnover rate because of coastal rain, but Dick enjoys the area and the community so much that he hasn't felt the need to leave.
"The job has a lot of variety to it," Dick says. "I'm never stuck in one spot all day."
His work area extends from Cullaby Lake, north to Astoria and east to Brownsmead. He often has to travel from one corner to the other doing jobs such as underground locating or meeting with electricians and contractors. Sometimes there are utilities in the way of construction projects, or power lines are hanging onto the roofs of houses.
"These are the types of things that eat up the whole day," he says. "It's not really exciting, but it keeps me busy ... On a typical day we just do maintenance, new revenue, new customers, new connects. There's always more than enough stuff to do."
Wide operationPacificCorp, also known as Pacific Power, serves 1.5 million customers in six states and is based in Portland. It boasts 15,000 miles of transmission line, 44,000 miles of overheard distribution line and 13,000 miles of underground distribution line across the West, according the company's Web site.
Residential electricity is generally between 120 to 240 volts. This is a change from the 4,200 to 34,500 volts that travel through power lines. That change happens when the voltage goes through "step-down" transformers, located on the top of poles or in the ground.
Outages can occur any time. Trees or branches that fall on the lines, lightning strikes, car accidents and even equipment overload - when too many people have too many appliances on at once at high volume - can cause the circuits to open and the power to shut off. These outages are called "trouble calls" and when they happen Dick and other linemen have to go out into the elements to fix the problem.
"Once in awhile I could get nervous, but it's like any job," he says, smiling. "It's pretty routine."
In the same breath he explains how dangerous electricity is. "It gets so hot that it melts metal in a fraction of a second. It's violent."
He treats safety measures with the utmost importance and never rushes through a job. Just working with powerlines can be dangerous, so all workers must use specific equipment and follow a strict set of safety rules.
"Electricity is not very forgiving," he says. "You make one mistake and you don't get another chance." He is always careful to wear a fire-retardant shirt and heavy rubber gloves. Crew members handle live wires of over 5,000 volts with long-handled poles.
But in the pitch-black of night, with rain pouring down and trees swaying on all sides, it's not easy to stay safe. Dick says he's had a couple of close calls himself, and there have been accidents involving the other linemen. But thankfully, no deaths.
"I've been in storms where trees have blown over right next to me," his says. "Storm work is the most exciting."
Storms can also be tedious and long. It's common for Dick and other linemen to work 24-hour shifts trying to fix problems, and Dick has worked a few even longer shifts. Portland crews are sometimes called to help out when something big happens, and that way they can work in rotations. Some trouble calls have required him to spend 12 hours wading through mud and blackberry brambles; others have even forced him to leave his family - and his dinner - on Christmas Day.
Not disillusionedBrockey is amazed that Dick likes his job so much - it's tedious and laborious work, Many other linemen have come and gone, disillusioned with the business.
"It's amazing that he's been working for so long and hasn't gotten cynical," the Knappa woman says, laughing. "But he never says no and he does pretty much everything."
"The job is great," Dick says. "I've had plenty of opportunities to climb the ladder and do other things. But this job, I just like it. Even the people are great."
Dick isn't even coveting his upcoming retirement in 10 years. He doesn't want to leave the company yet, but he knows what he'll be doing when he does.
"I'll mow grass and cut firewood," he says, chuckling. "I don't know about traveling much. I'm just happier than heck at home puttering around."
He doesn't focus on retirement because it's not something he wants to do right now. For him, contentment comes from working on the lines.
"It's all been pretty positive," he says. "I truly don't hate to come to work."