Keeping the Lights On


Steve Freese
President and CEO

Most of us think nothing of it when we walk into a room and flip the switch—the light goes on. That’s reliability, and it means security and safety for our communities. Most people don’t know that keeping the power on and restoring it quickly in times of inclement weather is a complex, challenging, and at times dangerous responsibility that never stops. A lineworker’s job is not only essential; it is critical to our health and safety, our economy, and our everyday life. NRECA has set the second Monday in April each year to be recognized as Lineworker Appreciation Day, but we applaud our lineworkers every day of the year.

Severe weather doesn’t follow a calendar. Ice storms, straight-line winds, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events take down trees and power lines, triggering the immediate need to restore power. It happens on holidays, weekends, and often in the middle of the night. Lineworkers get up and go, in extreme heat and bitter cold, and work until the job is done because they know the rest of us depend on it. You may remember Thanksgiving of 2019, when heavy wet snow came and went on for days, dumping two to three feet in parts of northcentral and northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, leaving thousands without power. Lineworkers from many of our co-ops jumped to action, working to restore power not only in their own communities but also to assist the areas that were hardest hit, in many cases, saving the holiday for others while sacrificing their own. It’s even more meaningful now that we know it was among the last of the “normal” holidays we would have for a while.

Photo courtesy of Vernon Electric Cooperative.

Our lineworkers’ selflessness was on full display when Barron Electric Cooperative’s town of Chetek was hit by a devastating and deadly tornado in 2017. The twister shredded much of the area, snapping poles and lines in its path. Ten crews from six other Wisconsin co-ops responded to offer assistance that went above and beyond. Their dedication and compassion were a shining example of why the cooperative model works so well.

Again in 2017, Florida co-ops put out the call for help following Hurricane Irma. Eighteen Wisconsin electric cooperatives stepped up, sending more than 50 co-op employees to rebuild the infrastructure that suffered catastrophic damage in the storm. Clay Electric Cooperative in central Florida lost 600 utility poles and 500 transformers, leaving 95 percent of members without power. Our crews worked tirelessly for four days in the Florida heat until the power was restored.

Another shining example of a lineworker’s compassionate character is our 2019 Partners for a Brighter Tomorrow mission, where our cooperatives partnered with co-ops in Illinois and Iowa to bring power to an impoverished village in rural Guatemala that had never had electricity before. Linemen from four Wisconsin co-ops joined the team. They worked in extreme heat, climbing poles without bucket trucks, wiring homes, and setting an incredible example for our industry, our state, and our nation. They took it upon themselves to do added fundraising, gifting the children with toys, backpacks, shoes, and school supplies, and providing the families with much-needed water filters. I was in Guatemala for the lighting ceremony, and I was able to see first-hand the incredible actions of these linemen. It’s something I will never forget. They changed lives.

Sometimes when I flip that light switch, I think of the stories my 93-year-old mother still shares with me about what it was like to live by the light of coal oil lamps and what a relief it was to finally get electricity. From those early days until now, the profession of lineworker has drawn a special kind of person—selfless, committed, courageous, hard-working, dedicated, and caring—the kind of person whose actions are louder than words.

Please join all of us at WECA in celebrating our lineworkers. When you see those bucket trucks, honk and wave, write a note to express your gratitude, or show your appreciation with one of the new Wisconsin “Keeping the Lights On” specialty license plates. Or, the next time you flip that switch, just take a moment and recognize those who work to keep the power on for us.