Paying It Forward
May 1, 2021
Jason Tomich scales the wooden utility pole with the agility of a wiry sailor ascending a ship’s mast. His sharp spikes dislodge splinters of yellow pine as he climbs.
“Wood chips are fine,” notes the West Penn Power lineman, descending the practice pole outside the Charleroi Service Center. “As long as it’s not chunks.”
Tomich kills time with fellow lineman,
Nash Harbaugh, on a chilly March afternoon, awaiting a pair of tryouts for FirstEnergy’s Power Systems Institute (PSI) training program for the next generation of line workers. Tomich and Harbaugh are preparing the candidates for their technical evaluations.
No one would blame the men if they took the day off after a long night restoring power to thousands of West Penn Power customers courtesy of an overnight windstorm. Instead, Tomich and Harbaugh rig a handline on the practice pole for the PSI evaluations.
“Linework is my passion,” says Tomich of his willingness to stick around to coach PSI candidates after a 16-hour shift. “And I want it to be their passion.”
Alyssa Imbrogno arrives and pulls her gear bag from the trunk of her car. Tomich helps the 27-year-old pizza shop manager and mother of two secure her red safety harness. The harness attaches to a self-arresting tether system that prevents novice climbers from falling.
“Hold up a minute,” Tomich tells Imbrogno. He sits down on a nearby brick wall. “I need to change my foot.”
Pulling up his left pant leg, Tomich reveals a short metal prosthetic leg attached to his knee by a hydraulic carbon fiber socket. At the bottom of the metal leg is a foot encased in a leather work boot. He loosens two screws with a torque wrench and swaps out his rigid “climbing” foot for a more shock-absorbent “walking” foot.
“I hate this foot,” Tomich confides, trying in vain to bend his climbing boot between his hands. “No flex. If I wanted to get this foot out of the boot, I’d have to cut it out.”
Surgeons amputated Tomich’s leg below the left knee after a distracted driver struck his motorcycle in September 2017. The devastating injury came just five months after Tomich graduated from PSI.
Tomich spent two and a half years rehabbing and learning to walk independently. Never once did he consider taking an indoor position.
“I can’t sit inside,” Tomich says, swatting away the thought. “I couldn’t do a desk job. I like being outside and active.”
He climbed repeatedly with a buddy and requalified as a lineman.
Watching Tomich scuttle up a pole, there is no hint that he is working with a prosthetic. “I had to get used to not feeling the spike in the pole with my left foot and leg,” he says.
West Penn Power Lineman Jason Tomich (l.) works with PSI candidate Alyssa Improgno at the Charleroi Service Center. Fellow lineman Nash Harbaugh demonstrates his climbing skills in the background.
Tomich faces no work limitations. “The sky is the limit,” says Joe Musco, Tomich’s direct supervisor. “Jason can walk through the woods, carry heavy loads. He does everything. We are all very proud of him.”
Wearing climbing gear and her personal protective equipment, Imbrogno attacks the pole, fighting nerves and moving higher. Tomich calls out instructions and encouragement from the ground.
“Keep those knees away from the pole,” he calls. “And keep your butt out.”
As Imbrogno climbs, high school senior Paige Sethman shows up for some pointers. Enrolled in utility tech classes for several years, she considers climbing her strength. “I find it enjoyable and freeing,” she says.
Musco appreciates the efforts of line workers like Jason and Nash to tutor the candidates and understands how important it is to help the recruits. He also knows the hopefuls will never forget the assistance they received.
“We teach it like the PSI instructors teach it,” Tomich says. “It’s all still fresh in our minds.”
Check out this video of the recent Charleroi training session.