Joe McElroy is optimistic.

He wasn’t always.

“I’ve seen contractor construction practices that worry me.”

McElroy began his utility career as a fiber optic communications cable installer and is now director of safety for the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association. He says the national frenzy to bring broadband to unserved and underserved communities has given him a sense of urgency to ensure safe practices among the army of technicians, whether contract or co-op staff, hanging fiber near power lines.

“They need to know about hazard recognition right away,” he says.

But measures Michigan co-ops have been taking recently have helped ease his mind.

“Many now have their new communications employees join their electric operations meetings covering accident and near-miss discussions,” he says. “They’re also now participating in pole-top and bucket truck rescue training sessions. The longer they’re with electric co-ops, the more accustomed they’ll become to the higher safety standards electric cooperatives have in place.”

Broadband build-outs, which gained momentum during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, are expected to accelerate as billions in new federal and state monies are distributed to help close the digital divide.

Nearly 200 electric cooperatives in 39 states are already providing or committed to providing internet service, and another 200-plus are investigating such projects.

“We’re talking about thousands of new, often inexperienced technicians working near energized lines over the coming years,” says Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety programs. “This is something that requires the attention of safety professionals across the country.”

He says co-ops face a key choice during broadband planning:

• Install fiber well below the energized lines so technicians can work on the system without more comprehensive line training. This often necessitates pole replacement to facilitate the additional space.

• Or build closer to lines, saving on pole replacements and other infrastructure, but requiring significant additional training for broadband crews.

“Electric co-ops expanding into broadband services need to consider who will build and maintain their systems and where assets will be located on their poles,” says Corey Parr, vice president of safety and loss prevention at Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange. “If the cable is placed in the electric space, the safety plan and training for employees should be the same employed by cooperatives today for qualified lineworkers.”

Parr adds that the communications workers will also need training in the technical skills specific to the cables and equipment being installed. And because broadband technicians actually work inside of homes and businesses, there are added safety and exposure considerations.

“The key is to set high expectations and train team members to be successful in their tasks,” he says.

‘Within the boundaries’

SEMO Electric Cooperative launched GoSEMO Fiber in 2018 to help bring broadband to its 16,250 members and others in the surrounding area. But before the first fiber optic bundles were strung, co-op leaders decided they would build their system on existing poles near their energized lines.

“There are provisions in the National Electric Code that allow the owner of an electric utility to install fiber they own and operate up to six inches below their ground wire,” says Christopher Freed, the Sikeston, Missouri-based distribution co-op’s manager of fiber construction. “But that means once our system is built, the people who will maintain and expand it will have to be trained and qualified to work within the boundaries of the energized electric space.”

With more than 7,000 subscribers now connected and plans to complete the initial build-out of the $53 million fiber network this year, members of SEMO’s leadership team have spent nearly as much time learning and executing safety protocols as they have focused on hardware and refining the GoSEMO business model.

“When we started this project, five or six of us would jump into a van and visit co-ops active in the broadband space, then we’d spend hours discussing what we learned,” recalls Loyd Rice, SEMO’s manager of fiber services.

Training and communication are critical, particularly when working with a contract workforce.

“We’ve used contractors trained to work in close proximity to the electric space,” says Sean Vanslyke, SEMO’s CEO and general manager. “They know how to recognize the hazards and how to avoid them. More importantly, we’re confident that they’ll call us to get help from a trained electric line technician when the need arises.”

‘The same standards’

As the push to expand rural access to broadband has ramped up, the demand for qualified contractors has rapidly expanded, outpacing available workers in many areas. And while some have the training and equipment to install fiber on lower telecommunications lines, a much smaller number are qualified to work within or close to the energized power line space.

Tim McCulloch, president and CEO of Wolf Line Construction, sees broadband enterprises taking an increasing role in electric co-op operations.

“This will be a high growth field for the next 10 to 20 years, and then sustainable expansion is likely to continue,” he says. “When it comes to safety, electric co-ops need to hold their fiber contractors to the same standards they hold their own crews and any contractors working in the energized space, too.”

The company, which has worked with co-ops in Michigan, Colorado, Ohio and several other states, runs an apprenticeship program built around the specialized needs of co-ops and other utilities who are deploying fiber within energized line space.

“Our people meet safety and other competencies expected of all electric utility journeymen and regularly participate in in-service continuing education,” McCulloch says.

New certifications

Some co-ops are turning to their statewide training, safety and loss experts for help addressing not only pole-side safety issues but those inside of members’ homes.

“We formed an interim master committee to address safety issues from the co-op’s perspective, and we quickly agreed that there is a need for quantifiable training of our broadband personnel,” says Jon Elkins, vice president of safety, training and compliance for Indiana Electric Cooperatives. “We don’t see a need for an 8,000-hour apprenticeship program at this point, so we’re developing a certification program focused specifically on broadband issues.”

A dual-track curriculum, under development since last year, begins this month. While some elements will focus on outside work including stringing lines and installing drops, others are designed specifically to address installation and safety issues broadband personnel could encounter in homes and businesses.

“Our members have asked for a three-day program, so we’ve divided it into three modules. These include a focus on the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] communications standard, which is less stringent than standards for electrical workers,” says Elkins, who has consulted representatives from 21 Indiana co-ops and fielded inquiries from several neighboring states. “We’ll also run an introductory climbing module and spend time focusing on various systems and structures on a pole and what can potentially hurt them.

“Communications techs need to learn how to recognize elements that are in their proper condition and proper locations so that they will know what to do or who to call for help when they are not.”

Elkins adds that even co-ops heavily reliant on contractors to build out their systems need to look ahead to post-construction and routine operations when co-op staff may have to repair and maintain broadband equipment and handle expansions for new service.

“Members feel like, ‘Let’s train the outside constructors, let’s train the inside installers, and let’s get our systems up and running, and then we’ll look at what our future needs are,’” Elkins says. “Eventually, the contractors will be gone, and electric co-op employees will be maintaining these assets.

“There could eventually be a need for the same types of consistent performance standards we rely upon for mutual aid support following major disasters,” he adds. “Fiber could be as important or even more important as a post-disaster-event restoration priority.”

In Missouri, the statewide association is developing a fiber manual designed to address current and future co-op safety concerns the state’s electric co-ops may face as broadband operations mature.

“The Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives has had an electric safety manual for many years that is updated regularly by a committee that is involved in electrical operations,” says Rob Land, the statewide’s vice president of risk management and training.

“We formed a committee made up of employees from cooperatives that are installing fiber to help develop the content. We wanted their input from the beginning, and this has worked out well for everyone.”