I am not a line-clearance arborist. I have worked in the residential side of arboriculture my entire career and maintain a healthy respect for what’s flowing through those lines. If I’m being honest, I get spooked when I’m around them. So I do everything I can to keep myself and my work away from them at all times.
I know there are folks who perform line clearance and those who don’t, but the fact remains that utilities of varying levels of voltage are a reality in our everyday lives as arborists. No matter whether they’re running from pole to pole or pole to house, there are wires everywhere. Whether we plug into a computer or charge the battery for our chain saw, we all depend on that electricity, now more than ever, and it’s not slowing down. Ensuring that we are working to protect ourselves while working around these utilities demands a high level of attention and creativity.
So, what do we do when our job site has wires running about and a massive tree towering above it all?
Before we get too far into this topic, I want to address something basic: Know your approach distances to utilities and how to maintain them at all times.
I can’t stress enough the need to get the education for what these different systems look like and how to identify them. The Z133 and TCIA’s EHAP training program dive deeply into this, and if you haven’t gone through them, check them out. Before you start work, you need to know what hazards you’re exposed to. This article isn’t getting into the weeds of minimum approach distance (MAD), but it’s really the foundation for this topic of working around utilities – know what you’re looking at and what your approach distance is!
When it comes to setting up a job site, though, I’d like to offer my approach to analyzing the information and options of the task at hand. This simple exercise, involving three questions, has been a powerful tool in my problem solving for when things get weird. In time and with practice, these questions help develop a plan rather quickly, which in turn gives us more time to build the systems we need to make the operation go smoothly. I’ll add that this can be used for any situation, and, while it is not specific to working around utilities, it sure does help in that way as well.
Step 1: What do I have to work with?
Knowing what you have to work with gives definite parameters to work within. It might seem overly simple, but look around. What do you see? For me, this quick assessment gives me something I can wrap my mind around and then begin working toward. This is some of what I’m looking for:
- What is the species, and what can it handle in terms of load?
- Where is the tree growing, and how is gravity pulling it?
- How close are the utilities?
- Can equipment get set up and not be in the way?
- What equipment can manage the risks better and make our lives simpler?
- Are there other trees around? If so, are they usable? The rope angles may not be perfect, but might help pieces move where they need to go.
- If it’s a neighbor’s tree, ask about using it; it just may make the difference.
- Where are my rigging points?
- Where are my climbing anchors?
- What tools do I have, and how can they be set up?
- How much rope is needed?
As you gain experience and push yourself into situations that grow in complexity, you tend to find yourself on the edge of that “bubble” around utilities. I’m sure many can relate to showing up at trees where the utility-line clearance was maintained, but the tree is still growing pretty close, and we have to figure out how to work with said tree. Yes, it’s got the immediate clearance, but what happens when we make a cut? This is where we have to use what’s available. If you can get equipment to it, deploy it. If not, it’s time to climb. Either way, our approach never changes.
If, as you size up the tree, you find yourself coming up short for solutions, take comfort in knowing we’ve all been there. If you don’t know how to get the material down and stay within MAD, be it with thy self, thy tree part and/or thy tool, don’t continue! No amount of money or production push should lead us down a road where we invite more risk into our lives than necessary. Electricity takes a fraction of a second to flow through whatever it is touching, including us. Don’t take that for granted. Tap into your imagination and do what you know to be right, but ask for help when you need it.
Include the rest of your team in the conversation. There is a good chance they’ll have a perspective to add that may make a difference. Setting something from the ground or pulling on a tag line are easy ways to be involved that keep everyone engaged. If you’re on the ground, offer up some encouragement. You may not be the one making the cut that day, but you might be in the future. Be a team and work together to win the day.
Step 2: Where can we climb?
This tends to be the easiest of the questions for me. Basically, where can we get to?
Over the years, I’ve found that if someone has a confident and stable work position, they’re far more likely to make better decisions in trees. True, if you’re using aerial equipment, you’re not necessarily climbing, but the concept of work positioning remains the same. Get into a good spot, set up the best rigging possible and make the right cut. A mantra I deploy quite often is, “Small pieces, small problems” – meaning that when something is cut small, it’s typically a lot easier to manage and manipulate. Big pieces are fun when you’ve got the space, but that typically isn’t the case when it comes to working around utilities.
Look for different ways to secure yourself. Are you able to establish an overhead redirect or climbing anchor? Would a second rope help? Maybe you can use the tail of your rope to tie into the limb you’re on and control your descent or mitigate any swing potential. I’m not advocating for using all sorts of ropes and fancy gear to hold you in place. More so, I’m hoping to encourage looking at the situation in a different way. You don’t have to have all of the equipment or skills, just know there are options out there aimed at helping with this.
Better work positioning makes for better decisions, it’s as simple as that. Solid rigging points and angles give us peace of mind, so we can focus on the task at hand. Take the time to go where you need to go, and build the correct rigging for the situation. Don’t cut corners for the sake of speed.
Step 3: Where can it land?
The job isn’t over once the piece has been cut and it clears the lines. Ultimately, it has to come down. Many times this is harder to figure out than where to rig and cut. Build a system that allows the piece to flow away from the lines into a space that can travel through the crown as easily as possible. Try to make things as static as you can and not have to rely on someone below to let the ropes run fast enough to clear the wires. That’s a risky game that inevitably will catch up, so keep it as smooth and static as you can. Take some test pieces to see not only how the debris will load the anchors, but also how it wants to float through the air.
Sometimes, we don’t have the luxury of test pieces, but when we do, test the system before making the money cut. Know that you have the option of cutting something to intentionally make it hang up. It might be a bit of a pain to climb down and process it in the tree, but hey, it’s away from the wires. We have to mold our work plans, our climb and our rigging around where the trees are and what occupies the space underneath their crown.
Tag lines are a great option. A trick I like to use incorporates a small-diameter cord in a bag that’s easy to throw through the crown. I’ll pitch it in the path I want the debris to travel, which gives the ground team a tool to make their lives easier. Variety is the spice of life, and trees offer a plethora of variety. Try to find joy in solving the problem of landing tree parts. Lift, spin, drop, zip, float and throw are just a few options to accomplish the work. Be empowered by the fact that we do cool stuff in crazy situations that stretch our comfort zones and capabilities in a unique way. The trees require much of those who care for them. They offer challenges only we can figure out. So have some fun with figuring out how to make this stuff move to where it needs to go.
To tie it all together, equip yourself with as much knowledge and experience as you possibly can. Know how to identify electrical systems and the hazards they pose. Continue to grow your skill sets in work positioning and rigging. Work toward being able to access the hard-to-reach places of a tree. It helps with work positioning, but really, it allows for improved decision-making. Spend time practicing skill sets when the consequences are low, so you know what you can get away with when the consequences are high.
Often, we are only limited by the tree itself and what our imagination allows us to dream up, so be creative. Know that sometimes things will need to be complex to make pieces move where you need them to go, but always strive to keep systems as simple as possible.
Climb higher, cut smaller and have yourself a good and safe day.
Jeff Inman, Jr., CTSP, ISA Certified Arborist, ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualified and an ISA Tree Worker Climber Specialist, is risk manager with Truetimber Arborists, Inc., an accredited, 19-year TCIA member company based in Richmond, Virginia, and Truetimber Academy director.