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Getting the Lights Back On

Anatomy of a power outage

June 2024

Outages can occur from a variety of causes, including fallen trees, vehicle crashes and even curious critters, like snakes and squirrels.

by Scott Flood, Contributing Columnist

A stray bolt of lightning connects a menacing cloud with a power pole about a mile east of your home. Your lights flicker briefly before going out. Things become eerily quiet as all your home’s devices equipped with motors and fans stop providing their constant symphony of background noise.

You’re experiencing a power outage, so you reach for your cellphone and call your electric co-op. Good move.

At the co-op, they estimate that about 500 members are in the dark as a line crew tosses their dinners aside and start steering their trucks in your direction.

About 20 minutes later, the lineworkers slowly drive along a stretch of road, keeping one eye on traffic while inspecting every pole, wire and transformer. In another eight minutes, they stop and step out for a closer look. The mystery is solved with one glance at the burn mark across the surface of the transformer. Readying the truck and ensuring it’s safe, they move closer to the line.

No two power outages are the same, but when trees fall or poles need to be replaced, restoration time can take longer.


If you are out watching the lineworkers, you might mistakenly assume they’re not very motivated. After all, there’s a power outage, you want it to end as soon as humanly possible, and it looks like they’re simply taking their sweet time while you’re missing the ballgame. But there’s a good reason the lineworkers aren’t rushing or running around.

Those power lines carry high-voltage electricity. It’s safe when all elements of the system are in good working order, but it’s potentially deadly when that’s not the case. Lineworkers approach what they do deliberately, efficiently — and most of all, safely. Every action they take is carefully planned so they can spot potential hazards.

When performing tasks, they follow standard procedures and safety requirements to ensure the repair is effective and sound. Working that way may take a little extra time, but it means they’ll make it home safely at the end of the day or night.


Less than an hour after finding the cause of the outage, the lineworkers load their tools and gear back onto the trucks. This time, the problem was easy to spot, the repair was fairly straightforward and the weather cooperated. But no two outages are exactly alike. The next one could be in severe weather or on a remote segment far off the main road. It could involve a fallen tree that needs to be cut with chainsaws or a broken utility pole that needs to be replaced. Doesn’t matter, because lineworkers will always get to the location and fix the problem as quickly as safety allows.

Driving back to the co-op, the lineworkers watch the passing homes and smile, because the warm glow coming from the windows means the power is back on again. A couple of homeowners in their yard wave as the trucks pass by. They may not know why the electricity went out and what was involved in bringing it back, but thanks to the lineworkers, life is back to normal.

Scott Flood writes for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.