KANSAS CITY, Mo.—On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Tanner Dunlap of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives was practicing how to operate, or “fly,” a bucket truck, but he was nowhere near a power pole. Instead, he was in a hotel conference room in front of a packed audience.

With controller in hand and goggles strapped around his head, Dunlap showed attendees of a May 1 breakout session of NRECA’s Safety Leadership Summit how co-ops can use virtual reality technology to reinforce safe work practices. 

“The VR bucket controls are pretty close to the controls in the bucket itself,” Dunlap said afterward. “In a bucket, you have to squeeze a trigger to operate it, and the way the simulation is set up, you actually squeeze on the controller to simulate squeezing that trigger on the bucket.”

Oklahoma City-based OAEC, where Dunlap works on safety and loss control, is an avid user of VR training kits designed by NRECA and Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange working in conjunction with Pike Enterprises/Electric Code. Statewide associations and other national organizations received a headset loaded with a simulated downed line repair experience as part of a suite of programs and resources available through Phase 2 of the Commitment to Zero Contacts initiative. Future simulations are in development, including underground switching and grounding. 

“VR training simulates real-life situations and allows for operational employees to perform work practices in a virtual world,” said NRECA Safety Director Bud Branham. “The goal is to help crews and employees practice and discuss strong work practices in a controlled environment similar to how airline pilots practice their work procedures in simulators.”

OAEC was one of five statewides to pilot the kits, and The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina was also an early adopter, having researched the technology since 2022. It’s important for lineworkers to get used to new ways of training, “especially if it will increase someone’s knowledge,” said Travis Renwick, ECSC loss control and training director. So far, he’s brought the training to six co-ops and has ordered two extra headsets. 

“We tried to get ahead of the technology with our linemen and had asked [a developer at Pike] to demonstrate it for us” before the official rollout, said Renwick.

Safety leaders at the breakout session said VR won’t replace the in-person experience but does enhance it. While younger generations of employees tend to pick it up more quickly, seasoned crews aren’t just sitting on the sidelines. They coach their crew members, pointing out improvement opportunities while working in VR, often leading to group discussions on safe work practices.

“We found that folks doing the work are learning, and the folks that are listening are learning, too,” said Cade Standifer, director of safety and loss control at OAEC for New Mexico cooperatives. “If I’m teaching you something, I want to teach you the correct way, right? So, if I’ve developed some bad habits or shortcuts, I’m more likely to notice them.”

Renwick and Standifer were initially newcomers to the technology themselves and had to spend several hours getting used to the goggles and controllers.

“I’m not a gamer, and I had never touched a VR headset before now,” Renwick said. “The biggest thing that’s helped me is I took the time to get acclimated and learn what the program could do and couldn’t do.”