The all-too-real reality
Public safety education and training saves lives. Whether you are a utility employee, public official, excavator, contractor or community member—knowing what to do and when to do it can mean the difference between life and death. In June of 2017, this became all too real for an elderly couple when a contractor doing excavation work hit a nearby underground natural gas pipeline, causing their suburban Los Angeles home to explode.
The homeowners knew to immediately go outside and call the utility. When a utility representative arrived onscene, the couple motioned for him to park in their driveway. Following safety protocol, the representative parked away from the driveway and waved to the couple to walk to his truck instead. The couple complied and moved towards him, at which point their home erupted.
Walking to the employee’s truck saved this couple’s life. Had they remained in the driveway, this story may have ended differently. Thankfully, incidents like these from natural gas leaks are a very rare occurrence, but even one is too many.
This incident is a great demonstration of why utility companies work tirelessly to protect the at-risk public through safety education. In fact, benchmark data on utilities’ public safety outreach program effectiveness demonstrates nine out of ten members of the public know to evacuate immediately if they suspect a natural gas leak—a key message included in public safety communication from their utility. With awareness of the need to evacuate so high, why don’t companies back off on their safety outreach? While nine members of the public know to evacuate, the fact remains that one does not. Should that one person encounter a gas leak, the results could prove devastating.
The at-risk public is not static. People move in and out of homes, with some becoming first-time homeowners. In addition, while evacuation from the area is a best-practice response, knowing how to prevent a gas leak is just as if not more important. As an example, property owners need to call to have lines marked before they dig, and should insist their contractors do the same.
In fact, beyond members of the general public, there are numerous stakeholders that need to be educated to keep the community safe. Contractors who dig as part of their work such as residential and commercial construction workers, plumbers and emergency personnel responding to gas emergencies, all play an important role. Even educators and public officials can make a difference when it comes to natural gas safety education. Segmenting outreach helps ensure that various impacted groups obtain the necessary knowledge to prevent and handle natural gas emergencies.
Thinking back to the anecdote of the elderly homeowners in Los Angeles, the couple and the utility employee knew to evacuate, the explosion itself resulted from a contractor failing to follow proper protocol. The local utility never received a request from the contractor to locate underground natural gas pipelines before crews began excavating. They dug into the gas pipeline as a result. This apparent break in safety protocol meant substantial financial losses for everyone involved. The homeowners suffered the loss of their home and damage to their property. The contractor faced the costs of repairing the damaged pipeline in addition to legal fees and possibly settlement costs.
Failures like this one occur for a number of reasons. However, a first step to prevention is ensuring stakeholders demonstrate awareness of safety protocols and understand the life-saving value of following such procedures. Not surprisingly, the more engaged a particular segment of the population is in their own safety, the more likely they are to act safely.
But how does an energy utility engage the public in this important topic without causing undue worry? The advent of Recommended Practice 1162, or RP 1162, by the American Petroleum Institute, specifies public safety communication requirements and has been an important move forward. Industry experts, however, express concern over getting the public’s attention in a world of competing priorities and communication. Research demonstrates that more relevant the audience finds the message, the more likely they are to engage it. Developing specific content, visuals, messages and channels addressing the most pertinent issues faced by specific audience groups help grab their attention, increases awareness and changes unsafe behaviors; this strategy is known as advanced segmentation.
For example, educating plumbers about cross bore hazards increases their knowledge about situations likely to arise on the job. Similarly, an important safety checkpoint for homeowners is receiving content reminding them to call before they build a fence, install an underground irrigation system or embark on other projects requiring digging.
In particular, young school-age children can serve as a very influential group when it comes to public safety. In research conducted with elementary and middle school children, students demonstrated higher safety knowledge on tests administered after completing a utility public safety curriculum. Furthermore, these students’ family members also reported that their child shared the utility safety information with them. Students not only learned how to avoid potential hazards, but also educated their family members.
For decades, Culver Company has partnered with utilities to advance public safety education and engagement efforts. Culver Company has developed a deep expertise in the best practices used to reach different segments of the public, moving beyond simply notifying them about safety hazards to truly engaging them with the safety message.
Utilities Must Meet Increasing Expectations in a More Challenging Environment
Many utilities boast a long history of investing in public safety communication. Enhancing the public’s awareness of utility safety protocols, however, is growing increasingly important, as demonstrated by the increased regulatory focus. The financial consequences of utility-related incidents will be more heavily scrutinized by investors, the insurance industry, regulators, and local politicians, as evidenced by numerous highly publicized accidents. In response, some utilities are embarking on continuous improvement programs to ensure year-over-year progress.
The threat of more incidents looms due to an aging utility workforce and infrastructure. Sources report that up to one-third of utility employees are hitting retirement age. As the more than 76 million baby boomers begin to rapidly move into retirement, taking their experience and institutional knowledge with them, less-experienced employees are taking their places. Utilities have sought to aggressively close knowledge and experience gaps by increasing the intensity and scope of new employee education and ongoing training. Utilities also express concern about retaining the new employees they do hire, exacerbating the potential for knowledge-gaps.
Add on to these workforce issues the advanced age of our nation’s natural gas infrastructure, where in some states, parts of the distribution system are more than 100 years old. Aggressive modernization efforts continue, but they can take years—decades, in fact—as well as significant investment. An informed public helps to mitigate at least some of the risks associated with aging leak-prone infrastructure.
These major concerns, along with the intrinsic drive to keep people safe, are why more utility executives are executing comprehensive, strategically-focused public safety education campaigns that extend well beyond meeting minimum regulatory requirements.
Furthermore, these leaders realize that capital investment and leadership buy-in for comprehensive public safety education strategies do more than prevent costly financial exposure; they add value to each department of the company. These programs build the utility’s credibility, which in turn enhances brand reputation, demonstrates a commitment to responsible fiduciary management, increases stakeholder confidence and builds community trust. In fact, J.D. Power and Associates credits natural gas utilities’ increased focus on safety communication as a major driver of industry satisfaction increases.
Culver Company’s benchmark research, compares performance across utilities’ safety outreach programs and demonstrates how public safety communication programs favorably impact utility image when it comes to safety perceptions. The research specifically shows that when utilities’ efforts extend beyond compliance, the public feels they demonstrate a higher safety commitment.
Safety culture – capturing the heads and hearts of employees in protecting the public
How can a rapidly-changing industry keep an eye on the multiple variables involving public safety communication to create a sustainable and systemic approach? Over the years, Culver Company, in partnership with the leading utilities we serve, has identified industry best practices for promoting public safety and damage prevention awareness. Focusing on comprehensive outreach, including engaging utility employees as well as key segments of the public rather than a “check-the-box” compliance-based approach, makes a significant difference in ramping up stakeholder knowledge of desirable safety behaviors. We can capture the heads and hearts of the public as well as utility employees.
Robust research with target audience members ensures messages not only reach the public through the channels they are most likely to value, but do so in ways that educate and empower stakeholders to act more safely. Ongoing benchmarking research also helps set a foundation for continuous improvement, resulting in utility public safety programs that meet the public’s rising expectations year over year.
At the same time, highly successful utilities embrace a comprehensive safety culture by instilling the message that safety matters on and off the job. Grassroots employee efforts embrace the accountability of demonstrating safe behavior 24/7 while reminding friends and family to do the same. By leveraging the inherent credibility and expertise of employees, utilities benefit from an employee advocacy that further supports existing public safety communications.
Starting the journey
Where can a utility start? Listed below are three main stages in the evolution of utility public safety communications programs to help you begin evaluating where your company is in this process.
Progressive stages in public safety education:
- Mitigation-Focused Programs—Meet compliance criteria only
- Responsive Programs—Blend mitigation efforts with response actions to certain risks or incidents that have occurred
- Culture-based Programs—Most comprehensive, instill a sense of personal accountability by considering what has happened as well as what could happen in the future
Living in the past
Mitigation and responsive programs are reactive and measure past events, such as number of incidents, deaths, injuries, dig-ins and/or legal claims; they focus on lagging indicators. While these lagging indicators can prove helpful in identifying gaps, they offer little information on how to prevent these events from occurring in the first place.
Keeping an eye on the future
In comparison, culture-based public safety strategies consider both past events and future trends. They take into consideration leading indicators, which are valuable because they can predict and influence future change. This approach moves from looking at what has happened and what could happen, to where the utility wants to be. Some examples include:
- Effectiveness of touchpoints with at-risk audiences
- Consideration of the “damage rate”
- Response time to gas leaks
Success in a challenging environment
Assessing where the various segments comprising the at-risk public are in terms of safety knowledge serves as an important next step. Specifically, primary research that measures results annually helps utilities keep their fingers on the pulse of the public’s rising expectations and defines what “good” looks like – two areas regulators often question during audits.
Moreover, the information also sets a foundation for maximizing the return on investment for public safety engagement programs. Specifically, the research ensures important safety messages are seen, understood and continue to resonate with target audiences. Advanced segmentation helps to get the most out of programs, because utilities can be confident the right message is seen at the right time by the right audience.
Information gleaned from the research also helps utility employees support public safety efforts on and off the job. Sharing relevant information about at-risk audiences helps utility employees who regularly engage with the public better communicate information and encourage safe behavior.
Now, based on what you know – how do you define your company’s public safety education? Does it adequately match your overall strategy? Does it deliver the results you expect? If you are still not sure, you are not alone; this is why many leading utility companies seek external expertise to assess and build their programs.
The next steps in this evolution
Strategic, comprehensive public safety campaigns are now the norm, rather than the industry gold standard. They are proven to make the public safer while improving a company’s reputation and financial health. Designing and implementing a utility public safety communications outreach initiative that aligns with your utility’s short- and long-term goals and strategy doesn’t have to be daunting – not with the right partner.
About Culver Company
Culver Company brings more than 40 years of experience working with leading utility companies nationwide. Our clients gain access to a powerful and diverse team of professionals with the technical expertise, industry insight and strategic experience to help organizations meet their goals.
Culver Company maintains an industry leadership position because we customize our services to each utility’s unique goals, regulatory environment, and at-risk public profile to move beyond compliance and hone a utility’s existing public safety culture. Our team takes a strategic approach to help evaluate your company’s strengths and identify areas of improvement. We have the experience, know-how and data to help evolve your public safety program to the next level to ultimately mitigate risk while adding value to its public image and financial health.
Contact us to begin the conversation:
Culver Company—Strategic Services
 J.D. Power Residential Natural Gas Satisfaction Study