Powering Strong Communities

Building safety literacy

Everyone uses electricity, but learning how to use it safely is an ongoing process. As stewards for electric safety in the community, public power utilities play an important role in educating community members about how to stay safe when using electricity or around electrical equipment.

Building electrical safety literacy in a community means utilities must be able to engage community members of all ages, often starting with kids in schools.

Creating safety champions

Edmond Electric in Oklahoma has been offering a safety presentation to fourth and fifth graders for the past 10 years. In educational videos, mascots “Neon Leon” and “Lightning Liz” tell kids how electricity flows and teach them how to stay safe around utility equipment out in the community. Lineworkers supplement the video demonstration with additional safety messages and scenarios, and they often deliver the one-hour presentation to an auditorium of fourth graders. 

Jessica Lyle, community relations coordinator at Edmond Electric, said that the utility usually provides the presentations to an area elementary school two or three times a year, including sometimes as part of a summer program.

Lyle emphasized that the utility aims to give the presentation shortly after the students have learned about energy in the curriculum. That way, the presentation can reinforce what they learned and be a valuable chance for the kids to see electricity in action once they’ve learned about it.

In Ohio, Piqua Power System has been providing safety demonstrations to intermediate schools for at least 30 years, said the public power utility’s assistant director, Bob Bowman. The demonstration includes a tabletop display that covers a variety of electrical hazards that kids might encounter at home or outside.

The National Energy Foundation, which has a mission to promote energy literacy, works with utilities to develop materials about a variety of energy topics. NEF developed a program called Energy Safe Kids, which includes an in-class presentation and a suite of materials that can be tailored to a utility’s service territory.

Ian Wright, director of business development at NEF, shared that beyond the foundation’s safety-specific suite of materials, safety has been a “major component” of all topics the foundation covers. Public power utilities, such as Austin Utilities in Minnesota, have worked with NEF to share energy efficiency messages with local schools.

Students are an oftentimes underestimated resource to get a message out to the community,” said Wright. “They really absorb the information and are excited about it … and they are able to reach family members and adults in a way that we or the utility can’t. Adult programs are great, but students really have a drive, really have a fire, and adults are going to listen to those kids.”


Bringing the message home

For two weeks each October, Huntsville Utilities in Alabama hosts area fourth grade classes for an event called Education Days. The event brings classes from most of Huntsville’s three school systems to the utility’s Electric Operations Building for a daylong visit that covers everything from how electricity is generated to tips for conserving water. An important component of the day is sharing the electrical safety messages and scenarios, such as what to do if the kids see a downed power line or are in a car that strikes a utility pole, according to Todd Long, Huntsville’s electronic content administrator. 

The public power utility has a safety demonstration trailer, which for Education Days is located within Huntsville’s lineworker training yard. The yard is set up with full-scale poles and exercises such as hurtman rescue. Gary Whitley, communications and public relations manager at Huntsville, noted that this helps the students more easily connect the scenarios seen within the trailer, which are at a mock scale, to real life. The students also get to tour the dispatch center, where the utility shows students their school on the switch map and points out any outages.

“Having them in that space really brings it home,” he said. Bringing the kids on-site also makes it easier for lineworkers and other crew members, who might share a personal story about the importance of electrical safety, to take part in the program.

“Whenever a person can give a real-life experience, people seem to be intrigued by that,” echoed Piqua’s Bowman. He mentioned that it is important utilities ensure that the employees giving the program are the ones who are interested in providing it. “Those who are interested tend to shine and put effort into it.”

Bowman said that educating the community about safety reflects the utility’s culture of safety. “You have to believe in safety to begin with. Not for just the employees, but for the public and your customers as well. If the director has that mindset, it becomes somewhat infectious, and they are happy to spread that to others.”

NEF’s Wright said that presentations are ideally given to about three classrooms (75–90 kids) at once, which allows for kids to get more hands-on with the presentation. NEF structures materials so that there is a “take home” element, which sparks kids to share safety messages with their parents or others at home. For example, as part of its Energy Safe Kids materials, students will get a “household safety challenge” form that has children check (with an adult) for common electrical hazards (such as frayed wires), and asks whether everyone in their household knows what to do in potentially unsafe situations (such as if they see a downed power line).

The students are often incentivized to complete the form by offering simple rewards such as backpack reflectors if they bring the completed form back, and NEF sometimes offers teachers a classroom safety mini-grant if enough students return the forms. The foundation also works with utilities to promote competitions, such as a poster or video contest, that encourage kids to engage with their communities on safety messaging.

NEF also offers a digital curriculum, which students can access to get further into the topics.

The programs show a clear lasting impact. Whitley said that older students who come to the utility for a summer work program, and even some employees, will tell the utility how they “remember that fourth grade field trip. So, we actually know that it is a really valuable, important trip because they are retaining it many years later.”

Edmond’s Lyle noted that it is important for the safety presentation to be on the kids’ level and relate the messages to what they like to do. For example, the presenters will often ask the kids if they like to climb trees or fly kites before talking about safe practices around power lines.

Several utilities, including Huntsville and Piqua, noted that their demonstration involves showing how a hot dog reacts to coming into contact with electricity. Kids learn that the human body is composed of a similar amount of water as the hot dog and would be affected in much the same way. Although a simple message, it is definitely one that sticks.

Bowman noted that his daughter, who is now 29, has friends who still refer to him as “‘Bob the hot dog guy’ — and that was from a demo I gave when they were in junior high.”

The right time

While utilities acknowledged that safety messaging can be shared at all ages, many noted having the most success with fourth and fifth graders.

This is often when school curricula will begin to cover energy and electricity, noted Wright. NEF structures its suite of materials around national learning standards and in consultation with teachers and other educational professionals. “If our materials didn’t align with the curriculum, they wouldn’t be taught in the classroom,” said Wright, adding that the specific focus on safety alone can be a big challenge because safety is often not an element of the curriculum in schools.

Focusing on slightly older kids also allows the messages to be more meaningful.

“While it is cool for first graders [to see the demo], they don’t really get the message,” said Lyle. She said the school outreach focuses on fourth and fifth graders “because they’ve gone through energy lessons and they understand more or less what electricity is and how it works.”

Bowman also noted that teachers or the school districts will reach out to request the presentations based on when they have covered electricity in the curriculum. He said that the utility can modify the program based on teacher requests to emphasize certain areas that might align more with the curriculum, but that the presentation mostly stays consistent. Bowman has come to expect that schools will request to schedule the presentation before winter and spring breaks.

“Students are old enough that they can start to grasp more complex topics and getting to the point where they are really engaging with their family and friends,” added Wright. “We have fun stuff for the younger kids, but the difference is the robustness of the curriculum.”

Connecting with schools

While knowing the curriculum is helpful to making an entry into the schools, Wright emphasized that utilities are a trusted resource in their communities and often seen as the experts on energy topics.   

Whitley said that Huntsville has held its Education Days event for 18 years. The utility sends out invitations to the event at the beginning of the school year, and Whitley noted that area teachers have come to expect the program every year. Since the city has been growing, the event isn’t able to reach all schools, but Whitley said they “try to bring in as many classrooms as we can.” He expected that the event would reach about 1,800 students in 2019. Condensing the sessions into a 10-day period helps make the most of staff time and resources. Whitley said that about five people staff the trailer and that the event takes a lot of staff time to coordinate.

Outside of Education Days, Whitley said that the utility is sometimes invited to classrooms to provide shorter educational sessions.

Safety education everywhere

“We try to incorporate safety messaging whenever and wherever we can,” said Whitley. As an example, he mentioned that Huntsville incorporates safety messages into outage communications, emphasizing that the utility wants people “to know that our crews are working, but also that they have to work as safely as possible.” Huntsville also brings its demo trailer to various community events to share the messages with community members of all ages.

In Oklahoma, Lyle said that Edmond Electric has hosted safety fairs at local hardware stores, where it has invited other community groups with a safety message — including police, fire, and a bicycle safety committee — to participate. At such events, the utility has set up a diorama with a power pole and electric lines to talk about what to do if there’s a downed line. Lyle said the events mix in safety messages with fun activities, such as challenging kids to screw in a bolt while wearing insulated rubber gloves or using a hot stick to open and close a fuse.

Lyle noted that although these activities are focused on kids, the community events allow the utility to share messages with parents at the same time. As a bonus, Lyle said that parents often express kudos or thanks to the utility workers during these events for restoring power quickly or for other work, which helps to boost morale.

Bowman said that Piqua Power will bring the demo to “anyone who calls and asks.” He said the utility has given safety demonstrations at a variety of community fairs and festivals, for Cub Scout groups, “anything to get the safety aspect out.” He estimated that the utility participates in about four festivals a year.

“Whenever we set up a display … we always have people intrigued,” said Bowman. He said that students who saw the presentation in school will often approach the display wanting to show their parents, grandparents, or friends.

“It is important to build a relationship, not only with the teachers and principals and schools, but the public in general,” he said. Sharing safety messages doesn’t just keep the community safe, it also helps build a rapport between the community and the people who help keep the power on.

Engaging Schools

As part of the national campaign to raise awareness of public power, the American Public Power Association has developed and curated a number of materials to help public power utilities engage with schools and school-aged kids on safety and other public power messages. Download the toolkit from WeAreCommunityPowered.com/Utility-Resources.

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