When Lineworker Training Becomes the Real Deal

Illinois co-ops credit regular training for successful rescue of colleague suffering from mid-air cardiac arrest

Regular safety training helped more than a dozen Shelby Electric co-op line crews save Kevin Carlen’s life. Carlen is seventh from the left. (Photo By: Kevin Bernson)
Regular safety training helped Shelby Electric lineworkers save Kevin Carlen’s life. Carlen is seventh from the left. (Photo By: Kevin Bernson)

Shelby Electric Cooperative’s Kevin Carlen had completed “hurt man” rescue training and was on his way down when he lost consciousness at the top of the pole.

At 22 feet in the air, the forestry foreman had suffered sudden cardiac arrest.

“He kicked back so hard that his feet came out of the pole. Basically, he was just laying in his belt,” said Thad France, a safety instructor at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives in Springfield.

France was conducting annual pole-top rescue training at the Shelbyville, Illinois, co-op in mid-May when the incident occurred. He stood, horrified, at the base of the pole with the rest of the group.

“When he first kicked back in his belt, people thought that I had set this up for the training. But I saw the color of his face and it was gray,” said France, whose father has had a heart attack. “I knew immediately what had happened.”

Within seconds, the group sprang into action. Each person chose a role. Because a training exercise had been in progress, a trainee was already up in a bucket ready to retrieve Carlen. Another put on his climbing tools to go up the pole. Someone ran to get the AED kit, and once the Carlen was safely on the ground, two others administered CPR. France applied the automated external defibrillator (AED).

No life-saving detail was too small.

“The guy who called 911 had enough wits about him to go out in the road to meet EMTs because [construction work] was blocking the normal entrance. He had EMTs come a different way,” France recalled.

“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my 24 years as a lineman. Every time I yelled to someone to do something, he was doing it. It was boom, boom, boom. Everyone did the right thing. As far as the actual rescue, even the EMTs said that the group of guys did better than most of his fire department.”

Regular training enabled crews to save Carlen’s life, said Josh Shallenberger, the co-op’s president and CEO.

“We learned a few things that day,” said Shallenberger, who ran out to the training yard that day to provide backup support. “We were very thankful that Kevin was wearing a BuckSqueeze belt for fall protection. Also, once the guys realized this wasn’t a joke, they jumped to action and what they’ve been trained to do over the years just came out naturally.”

Carlen, 54, is recovering at home awaiting surgery to repair a clogged artery and is looking forward to going back to work. “Someone called it the ‘perfect storm’ to have the [heart attack] happen here at the co-op office,” said Carlen. “I could have been by myself or in a right of way with one other person.”

The real-life lessons of that day remain with France still. “Even afterwards [when EMTs took Carlen to the hospital], we all looked at each other and said, ‘I guess this is why we do the training every year.’”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.