Teaching Safety First

Northern Wasco County PUD’s community outreach starts in first grade

By Rodger Nichols

Brewster Whitmire left, and Guy Andersen teach Dry Hollow Elementary fourth graders why it is important to always be aware of power lines when climbing trees or flying kites. Photos by Lily Garcia

Safety is a priority at Northern Wasco County PUD. Part of the PUD’s safety program is outreach to the community, which includes educating children about electrical safety through annual presentations at elementary schools.

Northern Wasco County PUD and Wasco Electric Cooperative recently teamed up and visited Dry Hollow Elementary and St. Mary’s Academy. Line crew members spoke with children in grades one through four, one class at a time, about the safety of being around electricity.

Lineworkers set up a demonstration table with several miniature scenarios, including a substation, a school bus scene, and settings with a ladder or tree.

“What we do is give examples like, ‘Here we have little Susie near a tree. She’s flying a kite or she’s trying to climb the tree, but she doesn’t notice that the tree is next to a power line,’” says Lili Garcia, NWCPUD corporate services assistant.

“‘Does anybody know what would happen to Susie if she climbed this tree and the tree was touching the power line?’ The kids get all excited and want to see, to know what’s going on.

“We have it set up to where there is a copper rod that comes from the tip of a little plastic doll. There’s a metal piece at the end, and we put it next to the power line.”

The demonstration table is wired so the power lines next to the model tree are electrified with a low-voltage charge that produces a visible spark when the rod in the doll gets near the wire. It’s a memorable lesson.

Guy, left, demonstrates the dangers of playing in a substation.

“We ask them, ‘Did that damage Susie?’” Lili says. “‘She now has to get first aid and medical help because you never know what could have happened to her.’”

When students ask why the doll has a copper wire, a lineworker explains that electricity can go through some materials, such as copper, but not through the plastic of the doll. The wire is there to show the effects on the human body, which is a conductor of electricity.

“We tell them that electricity always wants to find the quickest way to get to the ground,” Lili says. “If a person touches electricity, their body provides a dangerous shortcut.”

Lili says the message is tailored to each class, with simpler explanations for first graders and more in-depth information for fourth graders. There is a conscious effort to create stories that resonate with children’s regular activities.

“We ask them, ‘How many of you kids dig holes in your yard?’” Lili says. “They respond with an excited, ‘I do! I do!’

“I have pictures to show us doing underground work, and I always remind them to be careful. I tell them that if their parents are about to install a fence or put something in the ground—anything that requires digging—they should always call 811 first to make sure that there’s nothing buried in that spot, whether it’s communication lines, electrical lines, or water pipes.

“That’s one thing we like to teach our students when they’re really young, so they can go home and say, ‘Hey Mom, guess what I learned today?’ We also tell them to have their parents call the utility company, whether it’s Wasco Electric Co-op or Northern Wasco County PUD if they have any questions.”

Another scenario that is rarer but can be dangerous involves downed power lines.

“Kids have a natural curiosity,” Lili says. “We teach them to stay away and tell their parents to call the utility or 911. The emergency dispatchers will get to us right away. We remind them that it’s not just the utility that wants to keep them safe. So do the police and all the first responders.”

The demonstration team always includes a scenario in which a power line falls on top of a school bus. Team members explained the children should stay on the bus because the rubber tires prevent the electricity from reaching the ground. The only time to leave would be if the bus is on fire. In that case, they would have to be careful not to touch the bus and the ground at the same time as they jump off the bus with both feet. Lili says the PUD finds the school programs rewarding in multiple ways.

“It is a pleasure every single time that we collaborate with Wasco Electric,” she says. “We hope we can continue doing it because we do see that we are making a difference in our community. And the biggest difference that we can make is with that younger generation that’s going to build the future.”