(The Philippine Star) | Updated May 22, 2017 - 12:00am
MANILA, Philippines - Theirs is a job not for the faint of heart and weak of spirit. Only the strongest and bravest can take on intense heat, torrential rains, stubborn landowners, threats of armed groups, and their own physical limitations to ensure round-the-clock reliable power transmission services.
From taking the lead in post-disaster restoration, NGCP linemen mark their dedication with the daily maintenance of transmission lines and towers, often requiring them to spend countless hours at least 100 feet above the ground.
“While most people take shelter from storms, our linemen clear felled trees and restore affected power lines. On normal days, our linemen can be seen inspecting towers, checking high-voltage transmission lines, and clearing structures and trees violating right-of-way clearances. For every minute they are on the job, they risk life and limb. Theirs is a monumental task, a duty they have long understood as crucial not only to NGCP operations, but to the public. Our linemen form the heart of our operations. They are the most dedicated of our workforce,” NGCP said.
Eusebio Alibuyog, based in Ilocos Sur, has been in this line of work for over two decades now. He started when the operations and maintenance of the power grid was still with the National Power Corp. This was eventually handed over to the National Transmission Corp. (TransCo) and then to NGCP, when the private company bagged the concession agreement from the government in 2009.
The hardest thing for a lineman is to be called to duty at the wee hours of night to restore a tower located in the mountains, according to Alibuyog.
“It’s hard to work just using the moonlight. We might get bitten by snakes. Unlike during storms, we can immediately see where the trouble is,” he said in Filipino.
NGCP linemen are the heart of its operations, carrying out the monumental task of maintaining 20,000 circuit kilometers of transmission lines and towers all over the country.
The company has 1,100 linemen tasked to do the daily maintenance of critical lines all over the country, according to NGCP South Luzon regional head Gerardo Torres.
Even if linemen are assigned to specific areas, they can be sent to critical areas at any given time to speed up repairs and restoration, he said.
“Our goal is to always meet or be ahead target. We can pull out line gang from other areas to finish restoration works,” Torres said.
When Yolanda lashed the Visayas in late 2013 and knocked out power in the region, Torres said NGCP sent 70 percent of its line personnel to help and fasttrack the restoration of transmission services in the region.
Alibuyog’s team – composed of a driver, six linemen and him as line foreman – was among those assigned to help in the restoration of power in Leyte. They stayed there for one month.
“We traveled by land from Ilocos to Matnog, Sorsogon to get on a RoRo to get to Leyte,” he said. “When we got there, we didn’t know where we will sleep yet but we proceeded to the mountains which cannot be accessed by vehicles. We brought in steel poles to fix the towers.”
NGCP was able to restore power transmission to distribution utilities and electric cooperatives in the Yolanda-affected areas in over a month through the use of emergency restoration system and light-weight modular towers. While these are temporary structures, they are designed to withstand weather disturbances.
NGCP’s linemen are distributed according to the needs of four major regions, namely North Luzon, South Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
Of the four regional divisions, South Luzon has the most number of linemen since it caters to 60 percent of transmission service of the entire Luzon grid. It also houses one of the largest substations and most number of power plants.
Last April 19, NGCP South Luzon encountered a problem when its Binan-Muntinlupa 230kV line tripped after a fire – which started from informal settlers – toppled Tower #34.
The said tower, which is located near the Alabang Exit of the South Luzon Expressway, caused heavy traffic since it leaned toward the road, forcing highway authorities to temporarily close the northbound and southbound lanes of the Alabang viaduct.
“We were worried that it would cause accidents to motorists,” Torres said.
Since it is a major thoroughfare, NGCP needed to rush repairs so it sent around 100 linemen to finish the job in three days.
Alvin Dulay, a lineman assigned in Mexico, Pampanga, was among those who worked on the Alabang tower. “We didn’t sleep in order to get the job done,” he said.
The restoration involved the deployment of two cranes – which were contracted from DMCI of the Consunji Group and First Balfour of the Lopez Group – in order to straighten the tower and provide support while the damaged tower foundation is being repaired. NGCP also put up an emergency restoration structure to bypass the affected line.
With the temporary structure, the Biñan-Muntinlupa 230kV line was restored on April 22. Meanwhile, a permanent structure will be completed on or before May 30, Torres said.
“We get reports that our linemen are being chased by land owners with bolo, threatened with guns etc. That’s part of their work. But as a public servant, their focus is the reliability and stability of the power sector,” Torres said.
How does one become a lineman
Even with the hazards of the job, being a lineman has been Byron Cafirma’s calling.
Based in Cagayan, he started as a trainee lineman in 1996 while he was still taking up an education course.
“If I didn’t become a lineman, I would have been a teacher. But when I graduated, TransCo called me up and I was hired. I didn’t plan on becoming a lineman but it felt good to be of service to people,” Cafirma said, who was promoted to line foreman last year.
A lineman’s basic skills include climbing steel poles and hundred-foot towers, tools identification, knowledge of structural designs and first aid skills.
But apart from basic skills, linemen must be firm and brave because their job is not for the faint of heart and weak of spirit.
So how does one become a lineman?
An applicant must be at least a high school or vocational course graduate and must be between 18 and 25 years old to undergo a six-month training to be conducted by NGCP.
The company recently introduced a training program dubbed Line Ranger School, which is being administered in partnership with Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) for National Certification Standards of Transmission Line professionals.
The line ranger candidates first undergo an extensive month-long classroom instruction to understand the workings and operations of the country’s transmission system, then move on to a five-month on-the-job training, to learn technical skills from NGCP’s current line professionals.
After the completion of the six-month program, candidates will be certified as NGCP Line Ranger. Currently, the program has 120 trainees, Torres said.
For the candidates, being a line ranger is more than climbing up transmission towers and poles. According to Fred Xyrus Pancho, 23, he wants to become a line ranger “dahil gusto ko makatulong sa mga magulang ko at makatulong sa ibang tao.”