When winter storms threaten to disrupt cell phone service, Rich Cornette goes to great heights to make sure U.S. Cellular customers' calls go through.
The 37-year-old network field engineer may find himself piloting a snowcat to the top of 8,036-foot Pelican Butte in Klamath County one day, or hiking deep in the woods outside Butte Falls the next.
Job title: Network field engineer for U.S. Cellular
Job description: Maintains stability of cellular phone network by monitoring towers
Salary: $42,000 annually
Education: High school graduate; ongoing training in communication technology
How long on job: Three years as a field engineer, 10 years with U.S. Cellular
If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? "Anything outdoor pretty much covers the dream job. My current job fits the bill well."
On 24-hour call, Cornette is responsible for ensuring that 38 cell sites, which include towers and buildings with sophisticated electronic equipment, are in tiptop shape.
Cornette generally covers an area that includes Grants Pass, the Illinois Valley, the Applegate and up Interstate 5 to Myrtle Creek, though he can be called out to other areas when needed.
"We make sure that each installation building operates at peak performance," said Cornette. "If something does happen, we try to get it ahead of time before it causes an outage."
On a late February trip, Cornette visited a site on Tower Heights Road in south Grants Pass to check on a piece of equipment that gave indications of a potential problem in the network. The engineer checked the piece and a backup and found they were fine.
That told him the issue was at another cell site linked to the Grants Pass location.
The visit had more than one purpose. Cornette did a general visual inspection for signs of vandalism or natural damage, and he scanned bar codes on equipment as part of the company's ongoing inventory process. Sometimes on such visits he'll do backup battery maintenance, too.
While at the location, Cornette also monitored a problem with a cell site on Siskiyou Summit. He had been alerted to the issue by a 24-hour network surveillance group in Illinois. The problem turned out to be with a link to the site provided by another telecommunication company.
"My work vehicle is pretty much my office," said Cornette. In the last year he's put 25,000 miles on his four-wheel-drive company truck. He keeps an overnight bag in the rig in case a problem cannot be resolved immediately.
Much of the diagnostic work is done through a laptop computer that Cornette hooks up to equipment. In addition, much of the equipment has built-in LED warning light systems that will activate if there is a potential problem.
"Anytime we are at a site we look at LEDs and make sure nothing stands out," he said.
Cornette has been with U.S. Cellular for 10 years, initially working in its call center. The company provided him training for his current position, and he regularly attends seminars on equipment sponsored by manufacturers.
"The biggest (challenge) is Mother Nature and what she throws at us," Cornette says.
Heavy snow or ice can cause an antenna to droop and send the signal the wrong way. Power outages can stop service, though sites are equipped with backup batteries and propane-powered generators. During the big storm in late January and early February, an antenna on Scott Mountain near Glide iced up. Because of the weather and a washed-out road, crews had to wait three days before they got in on the company snowcat.
During snowy periods, engineers travel in pairs for safety. Every two years Cornette takes winter survival training at Mount Hood that includes three days of classroom work and two days of field exercises.
Customer assistance is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, Cornette said. He frequently performs "drive tests" during which he monitors signal strength in areas that may have reported problems. Several times he's worked with customers who live off the grid to get them better signals.
Trained in both CPR and first aid, Cornette lends assistance at accidents or when motorists have car problems. Once he came upon a van of Girl Scouts stranded in the snow on Highway 66 at Greensprings. He found that accumulated snow in the engine compartment had caused the serpentine belt to jump its track. Cornette was able to make the repair and save the group a several-hour wait before a tow truck could come.
"Stuff like that makes me want do what I do," he said.