What’s the most important feature of a successful public safety education program? There’s no question that public safety education and training saves lives. Whether you are a utility employee, public official, excavator, contractor, or community member, knowing what to do in an emergency can be the difference between an incident and a disaster.
Many utilities have a long history of investing in public safety communication, and they can be justifiably proud of their track record. When benchmark data demonstrates that nine out of ten members of the public know to evacuate immediately if they suspect a natural gas leak, it’s easy to sit back and say, “See, it’s working.”
But stakeholders are moving targets. People move in and out of homes; some become first-time homeowners. Contractors and first responders retire and may take their utility safety knowledge with them. And while it’s satisfying to know that most people know enough to evacuate at the first hint of a gas leak, how many know what to do to prevent a leak in the first place?
Utilities are operating in an increasingly challenging environment, in which expectations are higher than ever before. Utility accidents can easily become national news, with devastating financial consequences, and utility-related incidents are more heavily scrutinized by investors, the insurance industry, regulators, and local politicians.
In response, some utilities are embarking on continuous improvement programs to ensure ongoing, year-after-year progress. They’ve recognized that there’s much more to public safety education than simply notifying their customers about safety hazards.
Beyond the general public, there are other key stakeholders who 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. Educators and public officials can also make a significant difference when it comes to natural gas safety education.
Recommended Practice 1162, or RP 1162, by the American Petroleum Institute specifies public safety communication requirements and has been an important step forward. Industry experts, however, express concern over getting the public’s attention in a world of competing priorities and communication overload.
The answer—and the most important feature of any successful public safety education program—is engagement. Really and truly engaging your stakeholders with your safety message.
Research demonstrates that the more relevant the audience finds the message, the more likely they are to act upon it. Developing specific content, visuals, messages, and channels addressing the most pertinent issues faced by specific audience groups help to grab their attention, increase awareness, and change unsafe behaviors. This strategy is known as audience segmentation, and it helps ensure that various impacted groups get the necessary knowledge to prevent and handle natural gas emergencies.
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.
Even young school-age children can be very influential when it comes to public safety. In research conducted with elementary and middle school children, students not only learned how to avoid potential hazards themselves but also educated their family members. That’s long-term effectiveness!
Achieving success in a challenging environment
How can a rapidly changing industry keep an eye on the multiple variables involving public safety communication to create a sustainable and systemic approach? Fortunately, the path is well-marked. There are industry best practices for promoting public safety and damage prevention awareness. There are robust research tools that can assess the safety knowledge of various at-risk public segments. Research can also help to ensure that important safety messages not only reach the public through the channels they are most likely to value, and that they resonate with stakeholder groups.
Yesterday’s gold standard—strategic, comprehensive public safety campaigns—are now the norm, rather than a rarity in the industry. They are proven to make the public safer while improving a company’s reputation and financial health.