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Work is continuous on-the-job training

Staff writer

Tim Jirak of Hillsboro likes his job as a lineman for Flint Hills Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“Every day you can learn something new,” he said. “The old-timers told me when I was an apprentice that when you think you have everything figured out, something new will come along, and they were right.”

He said not everything can be done the same way every time. Depending on weather, the number of people on the job, or other variables, sometimes a bucket truck can be used to fix a problem. Other times, such as when working on a private right-of-way, the lineman climbs the pole and carries his tools to fix the problem.

Some of Jirak’s most memorable moments were spent working in other parts of the state and country.

He has helped other companies restore power after tornadoes, ice storms, or straight-line winds have hit.

This past year, he and several other members of his crew spent eight days at Baton Rouge, La., after Hurricane Gustav hit the area.

They then went to Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Ike went through. A trip which should have taken a few hours took a whole day because the highways were full of evacuees returning to their homes and utility workers converging on the area.

When the linemen got to Lake Charles, they had to wait a day for flood water to recede from roadways before beginning repairs.

Snakes and alligators were spotted in ditches filled with seawater. The linemen specifically were instructed not to retrieve a dropped tool from the grass because of the danger from snakes.

The crew reset many poles which weren’t broken but were pulled out of the ground by the storm surge.

“We had two digger trucks at every pole,” Jirak said. “One digger would dig the hole and the other immediately would put the pole in the ground; otherwise, the hole would have filled in with rock, seashells, and water.”

Jirak grew up in Marion and graduated in 1983 from Marion High School. He has lived in Hillsboro since 1988. He has two children: Hayley, 16, and Dylan, 13, who attend Hillsboro schools.

He took a job after high school and was on his way to work one night when he saw a utility crew at work. He thought it looked like interesting work, so he quit his job and enrolled in Manhattan Area Technical College.

After a year of training, he graduated and went to work for a contractor. His job took him to southeast Iowa, southeast Kansas, and Nebraska.

He got tired of the travel and, in 1988, responded to a job opening with Flint Hills RECA of Council Grove, at its Hillsboro branch.

He began as an apprentice, became a journeyman, and now is line superintendent for the Hillsboro area.

As a lineman, he and his crew often spend time replacing poles that were installed in 1939 and the 1940s, as they rot at the ground level. The men also repair conductors, build new services to consumers, and fix outages.

Jirak said the job is dangerous, and it’s important to follow the safety rules.

“A guy can mess up just one time and die or lose an arm, fingers, feet, or legs,” he said.

Working in conditions like freezing rain, thunderstorms, high winds, or blizzards isn’t much fun.

“For me, working in cold, freezing rain with the wind blowing is the worst,” Jirak said. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t keep dry or warm.”

He considers working at night as just part of the job.

“You learn quickly how to keep yourself awake and alert to what is happening,” he said.

On a rotating basis, one crew member is on-call 24 hours a day. He tries to fix a reported problem himself but calls in others if he needs help.

Jirak said he receives satisfaction from knowing that customers appreciate what he does to restore power after outages and return their lives to normalcy.

Last modified Jan. 7, 2009

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