Line Contractor

License to Train: Automated plate readers lead to expansion at IBEW Local 9 Training Center

Jeff Johnson, IBEW 9 training director, displays a portion of fiber optic cable used for instruction.
Published On
Jun 15, 2022

In 2019, Tamara Clayton was fatally shot while driving home from work on a Chicago expressway. Her death, and other shootings in Illinois, prompted passage of the state’s Tamara Clayton Expressway Camera Act. The act resulted in a $12.5 million allocation for purchase, installation and maintenance of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) on Illinois expressways and interstates.

Thanks to this new technology and the lineworkers installing it, state and local police are better able to solve expressway shootings and other crimes involving cars.

Signaling a trend

The emergence of ALPRs signals a nationwide trend.

Fulfilling the first phase of Illinois’ effort to solve expressway shootings, lineworkers affiliated with IBEW 9, Tinley Park, Ill., installed 99 ALPRs on Chicago-area interstates in less than a year.

ALPRs are typically installed at night when traffic is light. Besides shutting down traffic lanes and working from a bucket lift to position camera devices on overpasses to read vehicles’ back license plates, the process involves installing fiber optic cable.

ALPRs are one of many new technologies used by state, county and municipal governments, along with infrastructure improvements, that Jeff Johnson, IBEW 9 training director, expects will keep the local steadily employed for 10–15 years.

A former dispatcher for the Chicago Fire Department and pension fund manager, Johnson said ALPRs and security pod cameras, which also require fiber optic connections for high-speed data transmission of visual images, have been going up in Chicago’s downtown areas.

IBEW 9 members regularly install and replace traffic lights, first-responder signal lights, red light cameras and streetlights, as well as 5G internet small cells on newer light poles. They also erect utility poles, install underground cable and frequently collaborate with IBEW 134 when installing and upgrading substations.

Expanded training center

In 2012, the IBEW Local 9 Training Center relocated from a storefront space in Forest Park, Ill., to its 100-acre campus in University Park. Since then, the instructional facilities have expanded dramatically.

A new 22-classroom building devotes an entire room to fiber optic splicing, termination and installation.

A nearby traffic loop cornered by four intersections provides a variety of traffic lights and signals for installations. Feeding into this loop is what instructors call “Candy Cane Lane,” which features an assortment of light poles, from 20-foot vintage lantern-style to 110-foot-tall, high-intensity LEDs used for illuminating interstate highways.

Nearby, another two-story building outfitted with control panels and huge picture windows allows apprentices to view signal responses to changes they make to the controls.

Digger derrick class and EICA crane certification take place elsewhere on the campus in a new 4,000-plus square-foot crane building. The 70-foot-tall structure features a crushed rock compacted floor.

Another building houses underground directional boring machines for burying cable. It features a permanent boring channel for use during inclement weather.

“With storm damage that comes with climate change and a concern for aesthetics, there’s been a real movement to bury cable,” said John Blair, an instructor at the training center.

This fall, the center expects to complete a mock rail facility for training apprentices on installing electrified rails and controls for Chicago Transit Authority trains.

Right now, 140 apprentices enrolled in the four-year program receive classroom and hands-on instruction two nights a week while putting in 40-hour work weeks with local contractors. Journeymen also receive instruction.

“A lot of families are starting to see the trades differently and no longer as a last resort,” Johnson said. “Apprentices receive 890 hours of instruction in math and other skills. That’s equivalent of $100,000 in education. Plus, they’re being paid while they learn, and they come out making around $100,000 a year. These are good middle-class jobs.”

Reaching out to everyone

To complement this growth, the local is increasing efforts to recruit minorities and women.

“We’re seeing a lot more women in this field,” said Tomi Dew, a crane instructor.

She was among the first women and first apprentices to gain journey-level certification at the University Park campus. She now works with all-women IBEW 9 crews on projects in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

IBEW 9 is also considering constructing a dormitory for apprentices and journeymen, but has yet to develop specific plans or timelines, Johnson said.

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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