The men and women who work for Bill T. Rees risk life and limb -- and sometimes need to call in police protection -- to ensure that 1.1. million customers in the Baltimore metropolitan area can flick on a light any time of the day, in any kind of weather.
They have been slashed by chain saws. Threatened by gun-wielding homeowners. Chased by dogs. And every once in a while, they get zapped by the electric current they are trying to protect.
As members of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s small but busy forestry division, supervisor Rees and his crews are responsible for keeping 2 million trees of all shapes and sizes from touching 9,400 miles of overhead lines that feed into homes and businesses.
"The great untold story is the actual difficulty in doing the type of work," says Rees, a Pennsylvania native who holds a degree in forestry. "A good tree trimmer can make it look easy as he sculpts branches around wires and conductors. A bad one can get you injured or even killed.
"That doesn't even get into the bees, dogs and angry people that you meet while doing the job. Everyone has had a near miss at one time or another."
For trimmer John Butters, it was last summer when he was stung 13 times after disturbing a bee's nest. For a co-worker, it was in 1998 when another trimmer slashed his arm after being startled by a tap on the shoulder. The wound required 28 stitches.
The work can also be deadly. Last year, a trimmer for a Virginia utility company was killed when a truck backed over him. In 1998, during an ice storm in the Northeast, the bucket truck a trimmer was working from started to move, and the trimmer, unable to grab onto the icy tree trunk, fell to his death.
The last fatality in the Baltimore area occurred about six years ago when a trimmer touched a wire with 13,200 volts of electricity coursing through it.
"A guy is on the ground for a good year before we actually let him do any real trimming," says Nicholas Valentine, a licensed Maryland tree expert and certified arborist with New York-based Lewis Tree Service Inc., a BGE contractor. "They are trained to always treat lines as if they're hot and that they could get killed at any time."
The job sounds simple enough: Prune or cut any trees that have the potential to interfere with power lines or that pose a safety hazard. Fallen limbs and trees are one of the major causes of blackouts in BGE's service area, which includes Baltimore and seven area counties.
BGE spends about $15 million a year on its forestry division -- 22 percent of its $68 million budget for improving the reliability of electrical service -- which has trimmers in the trees year-round.
The utility company hires out-of-state contractors to do the trimming because few local companies are trained to do line-clearance work.
The men -- there are few women -- who become trimmers are a macho lot. They are fast and smart. They are confident. They are careful. They thrive on danger and love the outdoors.
On a recent spring day along a wooded Anne Arundel County road, Tim Lewis, 30, a trimmer for Lewis Tree Service, has on a hard hat, safety goggles and harnesses while working 30 feet above ground in a cherry picker. With deceptive ease, Lewis lowers his head and guides his bucket through three parallel power lines. In his hands, he holds a chain saw on a pole.
Swiftly, he slices a branch off a nearby oak and maneuvers it from the lines. He does this several more times until there is a 6-foot clearing between the oak and the lines.
On the side of a hill where a bucket truck cannot venture, Butters equips himself with the same gear, plus leg chaps. Tossing a nylon rope over a sturdy branch, he pulls himself up a dogwood tree and straps himself in.
Using a pole clipper, he cuts vines, one by one, that have twisted themselves around power lines.
"Swinging vines pose serious dangers," the 29-year-old trimmer says. "It's dangerous, but if you know what you're doing, it's OK. Besides, I like heights."
Sometimes, the danger has nothing to do with the wires.
In February, an Anne Arundel County resident pulled a handgun on a BGE contractor who was trying to trim trees near the man's home. Three years ago, a Baltimore County man threatened to shoot anyone who walked on his property or touched any of his trees.
In both cases, police were called in to provide protection and the work completed without further incident .
When crews appear, women have cried and men have threatened to tie themselves to tree trunks, BGE officials say. In the early 1990s, several Native Americans held a prayer circle to pray for the souls of trees chopped down along miles of high-voltage transmission lines in Baltimore County.
In some cases, residents have called the police on the trimmers. Property owners have unsuccessfully taken the forestry division to court over trimming rights. People have called the trimmers "tree butchers," one of the nicer invectives aimed at the crews.
The trimmers say that pruning isn't always pretty.
"It is an art and a science," Rees says. "We're never going to get it 100 percent right, but we're going to improve it every year. Is it worth it? Yeah. You get to deal with trees."
What trimmers call pruning, property owners sometimes see as desecration.
Natasha Sullivan and Betty Burkhard, who live in Perry Hall near Gunpowder Falls State Park, called BGE recently to complain after trimmers visited their neighborhood.
"It was absolutely brutal what they did to my property," Burkhard says. "It was a living nightmare."
"They don't prune trees," Sullivan says, "they just cut them in half. I don't think BGE should be able to go around making everything look like hell."
BGE spokeswoman Rose Maria Kendig points out that "we don't need permission to trim trees in our right of way. We understand that people can get pretty emotional about their trees, but there is a need to cut trees."
The area around Sullivan and Burkhard's neighborhood has suffered 10 sustained outages -- those lasting more than a minute -- from 1997 to 1999. At one point, the area was without electricity for 56 hours. During the same span, the area suffered 48 outages of less than a minute each.
The average for any area should not exceed 1 1/2 outages of any kind per year, says Kendig, who attributes most of the blackouts to fallen trees and limbs.
Irate customers may be small in number, but they make themselves heard.
Over the past two years, BGE has compiled a database of people who are considered "sensitive" customers and who need to be contacted before pruning begins.
"We don't want to be the big, bad utility that strong-arms people, but we do have to get our job done," Rees says.
For Rees and his foresters, doing that job means spending hours a week learning about new research on saving trees or a new technique for drilling a 1/8-inch hole into a trunk to detect rot.
It means bringing in experts for refresher courses on topics such as fungus. It means joining groups such as the International Society of Arboriculture and participating in events such as the international tree-climbing competition, which will be held in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park this summer.
It also means getting tingled by the current when they get too close to the wires and being reminded of how dangerous the work can be.
"I wouldn't want to do anything else," says Lewis, who began his life as a trimmer about a decade ago. "You can deal with all the dangers and all the irate customers in the world when you're up in a tree, 60 feet in the air and it's sunny and breezy. There is peace up there.
"It makes it all worthwhile."