When Nila Wipf and Rowena Rodriguez met at the 2013 NRECA Annual Meeting in San Diego, it was the sort of meeting between electric co-op directors that happens hundreds of times at such events.
But this one was different.
Rodriguez, then board president at Batangas-I Electric Cooperative (BATELEC-I) in the Philippines, and Wipf, a director at Mercedes, Texas-based Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, live 10,000 miles apart but share a close history: They grew up in the same Philippines town and are, in fact, second cousins.
Rodriguez made the long trip to California having no idea her cousin would be at the meeting until she spoke to another U.S.-based relative who heard Wipf was in San Diego for "a conference on electricity."
She immediately reached out.
"Nila and I had not seen each other for more than 15 years," Rodriguez says.
The long-distance reunion would be interesting in its own right, but the real story is what has unfolded in the years since.
One of the things Rodriguez confided to Wipf when they met was her deep concern over on-the-job injuries involving her co-op's lineworkers.
"We had incidents where linemen died in service or had their arms amputated because of lack of training and equipment," Rodriguez recalls. "The first thing that came to my mind was to ask [Wipf] for assistance."
"I promised to help," Wipf says. "Either with my own personal funds or from Magic Valley."
It was the beginning of a relationship between BATELEC-I and Magic Valley that would lead to the first electric co-op safety and loss control program in the Philippines and what will soon become a national co-op safety regimen for the archipelago.
A Long Connection
NRECA's work in the Philippines dates back almost to the beginning of the association's international program. In 1968, NRECA and the U.S. Agency for International Development helped create the Philippines National Electrification Administration, which led to an explosion of electric cooperatives there. The program now stands at 119 co-ops serving 56 million people in 36,000 villages.
"The Philippines program started with just three cooperatives," says Dan Waddle, NRECA senior vice president for international programs. "But the government quickly decided to populate all rural areas with co-ops."
Electric co-ops have continued to proliferate in the Philippines as residents throughout the archipelago clamor for access to power. High demand for service is a good problem to have, but the pace of expansion has exposed weaknesses in the safety practices of co-ops there.
Until recently, there were no formal safety and loss control programs in the Philippines to monitor safety events and ensure corrective actions were taken when such events occur. Training and work practices had been inadequate to protect lineworkers, and limited resources have meant Filipino co-ops have largely been on their own to train crews.
"With the continued rapid expansion for electricity access in the Philippines, combined with the expectation for these co-ops to provide quality service, it becomes critical that they are given the tools and knowledge they need to be safe on the job every day," Waddle says. "And as longstanding partners, it's only natural that we help them fill that gap."
'One Fatality is Too Many'
When Wipf returned to Texas from the 2013 annual meeting, she told General Manager John Herrera about her encounter with Rodriguez. Could Magic Valley help BATELEC-I turn its safety record around?
Herrera was immediately on board.
"One fatality is too many," he says. "Safety has to be number one. Knowing that BATELEC-I was lacking that, it was an easy decision for Magic Valley and our board."
The co-op created a fund to initiate a safety training program for BATELEC-I and asked NRECA International to help build it. NRECA conducted an assessment and determined that while lineworker training was essential, a much broader safety and loss control program was needed.
"The initial goal of the study was to identify training needs for lineworkers," Waddle says. "But we realized that in order for the line crew safety efforts to be successful, we'd need to expand our efforts to include all facets of the co-op."
To design the program, NRECA International hired Chuck Dawsey, a former CEO of Benton REA in Washington, a past NRECA director and a longtime supporter of the overseas program.
Earlier this year, Dawsey and Brian Betterton, a former employee of the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives (statewide), traveled to BATELEC-I to conduct the first two modules of the 12-module training program.
"Our goal is to instill a culture of safety in all employees, including the board of directors," Dawsey says. "This will result in a sustainable safety and loss control program, which will hopefully ensure that employees return home to their families safe and sound every day."
BATELEC-I General Manager Alvin Velasco credits Rodriguez and Wipf for getting the ball rolling on the co-op's safety efforts.
"When they met in San Diego, this paved the way for us," Velasco says. "I feel very grateful. Assistance of any kind is always a blessing, especially if the co-op and the member-consumers will benefit from it."
Velasco says a turning point for him was an incident in 2014, when two BATELEC-I linemen were killed restoring power after a storm. That day, he made it his personal goal to build a "zero-accidents" culture at the co-op and instill in every employee a commitment to safe practices.
Six months into the training program, he says he's already seen a difference.
"They have gained confidence because now they have improved their awareness on how to respond and rescue in the worst-case scenarios."
A National Impact
The success of the BATELEC-I program could have impacts well beyond the co-op's borders.
NRECA International, the Rural Electrification Trading Corporation (RETC)—a longtime NRECA partner in the Philippines—and the Philippine Rural Electric Cooperative Association (PhilRECA) have agreed that BATELEC-I's program will be treated as a pilot that will be honed over the coming months and then made available to every electric co-op in the country. RETC will serve as program facilitator, with PhilRECA managing and coordinating program logistics.
The training modules for the wide-reaching program are aimed at the gamut of safe practices, including housekeeping, defensive driving, accident investigation, lineman training, firefighting, and substation maintenance.
"We envisioned this to be a national program that will benefit all electric co-ops and their employees in the Philippines," says RETC General Manager Tom Villafor. "We will replicate the program and make it available for other electric co-ops."
He says the goal is to bring safety training up to par with operational and financial concerns.
"Filipinos are hardworking, and they have high regard for excellence and accomplishing tasks quickly," Velasco adds. "This training program is very important to help reshape how we follow proper safety standards, especially when there is a clamor for quick and quality service."
Velasco says revamping the culture at any long-standing institution is a challenge, but for BATELEC-I, the commitment and concern of their U.S. counterparts has been a watershed.
"Seeing our 'big brothers' from America flying thousands of miles just to show they care and share expertise has motivated the program participants on the importance of safety," Velasco says. "We are extremely thankful for this breakthrough for our electric co-ops, and we hope that our gratitude will be reflected in the implementation of an effective program."
Herrera at Magic Valley says his co-op is proud to have provided the spark.
"This will touch all the electric cooperatives in the Philippines," he says. "I can't think of a better project to be a part of."
Rodriguez says she's already noticed a broader transformation at the co-op since the board and leadership made the commitment to safe practices.
"It's not possible for me or anyone who has a family to be detached from the risk of injury or losing a family member while performing his or her job," Rodriguez says. "This training program has really boosted the morale of the BATELEC-I employees."
Looking back, Wipf credits her cousin's courage in bringing up the issue and marvels at the power of cooperation among co-ops.
"It started from that one conversation in San Diego," she says. "It's wonderful."