Minnkota lineworker Kemnitz receives Lifesaver Award
This summer, lineworker Ryan Kemnitz stood strong under pressure and potentially saved a life in the Bemidji, Minn. area.
As an electrical lineworker, Ryan Kemnitz has been trained on how to deal with worst-case scenarios when working around power lines.
That knowledge, along with the courage to stand his ground, likely helped him save lives in July 2019. One year later, Kemnitz is being recognized for his bravery by the North Dakota Safety Council (NDSC) through its prestigious Lifesaver Award. NDSC representatives presented Kemnitz with the award during an Aug. 3 ceremony at Minnkota headquarters in Grand Forks.
Looking back on that day, Kemnitz recalled how an ordinary trip to cover a job in the Bemidji area quickly turned into a life-threatening situation. As he was driving down a busy U.S. Highway 2, he witnessed a bucket truck operator fixing a traffic light accidentally make contact with a power line, which ignited a fireball. The hazardous situation gave Kemnitz an opportunity to use experience from many safety training sessions in a real-life situation.
“What I saw right away was the electrical contact,” Kemnitz said. “I knew at that point that I needed to get up to that truck and make sure that guy was OK, and also make sure nobody runs up to help him in case the wires are laying on the truck.”
With cars stalled at the stoplight, Kemnitz took the shoulder of the road and drove around to check out the situation. He immediately noticed the power line had snapped and was lying across the road and started a grass fire.
“I turned all my flashing lights on the truck to help divert traffic,” Kemnitz said. “I first checked with the guy in the bucket to see if he was OK, which he was. He was on the way back down to recradle the boom. He was fine, but there was a grass fire burning pretty fast underneath the truck.”
Kemnitz grabbed a fire extinguisher from his truck and put out the fire. While Kemnitz was relieved to see the bucket truck operator was safe – thanks to an insulated bucket and boom – danger was still near. The arc flash caused the three-phase distribution power line to burn and fall across the road.
Cars were backed up at the traffic light as Kemnitz and one of the contractors discussed the situation. He asked Kemnitz to move the lines off the road and the two argued. Kemnitz determined that the line was owned by Otter Tail Power Company and that everyone needed to be patient until their crews arrived.
“One of our things is, if it’s not your system, you don’t work on it, you don’t touch it,” Kemnitz said. “I told him that wire doesn’t belong to the company I work for, so I can’t move it. He then wanted to grab my hot stick and move them, but I told him the lines don’t belong to you, either.”
Kemnitz said the contractor considered grabbing the wires with his gloves or hooking them with a shovel to get them off the road and into the ditch. Knowing that touching the lines likely would result in death or serious injury if energized, Kemnitz held his ground.
Soon fire trucks and ambulances and the Minnesota State Patrol were on the scene. A firefighter asked if the line could be moved and Kemnitz reiterated his position – everybody needed to be patient until Otter Tail arrived.
Once Otter Tail did arrive, the importance of Kemnitz’s actions became clear. The Otter Tail employee confirmed that the line was still energized.
“When the Otter Tail guy got there, he put his protective gear on, his gloves and sleeves and had the hot stick,” Kemnitz said. “But he still wouldn’t move the lines until another guy came to shut the switch off and tell him that it was actually de-energized.”
That’s the kind of safety mentality it takes when working around power lines.
“It’s a common misconception that people have is that if the wire is on the ground, it’s dead,” Kemnitz said. “And that’s not true.”
Kemnitz was nominated for the Lifesaver Award by Minnkota’s Safety and Physical Security department.
“We felt that it was important to nominate Ryan because a lot of the work that our crews do can go unnoticed,” said Travis Jacobson, Minnkota safety and physical security supervisor. “What Ryan did that day likely saved a life. It’s pretty clear that someone would have tried to move that line off the road. It would have been a bad day if Ryan hadn’t been in the right place at the right time and did the right thing.”
Though the incident didn’t involve a Minnkota power line, Kemnitz filled out a safety report.
“I did one partly because I used the fire extinguisher in the truck and safety would have asked for one anyway,” he said. “But it’s also a good thing to document and get out there as a learning tool. The safety department then has a copy of it and can use it if they need to for future training."