Last fall, when Stearns Electric Association wanted to attract a crowd of firefighters, police officers and other first responders to its warehouse on a Wednesday night for three hours of training on electric vehicle safety, the co-op relied on two powerful tools to drum up interest: its communications team and free food.
The 28,000-member co-op mailed invitations to local departments and used Facebook, email and phone calls to spread the word about the training and a chicken dinner.
“I also personally went to fire departments when they had their monthly meetings and told them about our event,” says John Pantzke, business development and energy services supervisor. “We started about eight weeks in advance getting the word out.”
They ended up bringing in nearly 200 participants, the best turnout among about two dozen Minnesota electric cooperatives that offered the training.
The events were held in partnership with Great River Energy, the Maple Grove, Minnesota-based generation and transmission co-op that supplies power to Stearns Electric and 26 other distribution co-ops. Great River Energy worked with its member co-ops to host sessions for more than 1,300 attendees from late 2021 through early 2023.
“We kept hearing about first-responder organizations that didn’t have good information about EVs,” says Rodney De Fouw, Great River Energy’s member electrification strategist. “With more EVs hitting the road, we thought this was a good opportunity to educate people.”
To conduct the training sessions, Great River Energy reached out to Jack Volz, a longtime volunteer firefighter and owner of Safety and Security Consultation Specialists. The Minnesota Lake-based company has been providing various types of safety training to first responders for a decade.
It was then up to each participating co-op to find a venue for the training session, provide some EVs for the hands-on portion of the event, and get the word out to local firefighters and other first responders.
At Worthington-based Nobles Cooperative Electric, the key to a successful event was reaching out to the county emergency medical director and local fire chief to help spread the word, says Tracey Haberman, the co-op’s member services manager. The co-op ended up having its training event at the local firehouse.
“We had 40 first responders, which is a good number when you consider that we’re a small co-op with about 6,800 members,” she says.
Worthington Fire Chief Pat Shorter says the co-op’s training helped get firefighters and EMTs focused on what to do when an EV is involved in an accident.
“I think it opened some eyes,” he says. “They talked about how to handle fires and tackled some of the unknowns in regard to electrical shock risk and how to disconnect the power. It was a good introductory overview.”
Volz said safety information about EVs was sparse, so he contacted vehicle manufacturers to gather more knowledge for the training sessions about what first responders should do if an EV is involved in an accident or fire.
Most EV manufacturers install a simple wire loop that first responders can cut with scissors to disconnect the battery, Volz says. Some even mark the loop with a yellow tag with a picture of scissors on it.
“The biggest myth we had going into the training session was that you can’t disconnect power on an EV,” Shorter says. “If the vehicle is fully engulfed, then you can’t. But if the fire is just starting, then you can absolutely disconnect it.”
Volz said another myth is that EVs catch on fire more often than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.
“There will be one EV fire in California and one in Vermont and one in Texas and all of those make headlines all over the nation,” he says. “Internal combustion engine fires happen every day all day and rarely make the news.”
Pantzke says the training should make all of Stearns Electric’s members safer, whether they drive EVs or not.
“You don’t get to choose who you’re in an accident with,” he says. “We want the people who are there to protect and serve to have the information they need to do that.”
Haberman says she felt good about first responders’ feedback after Nobles Cooperative Electric’s EV safety event last year.
“The training facilitator asked at the beginning of the meeting, ‘What’s your comfort level with EVs?’ It wasn’t high,” she says. “By the end, that had changed. They were very confident.”
Shorter says he hopes the co-op will do more advanced training in the future.
“It was really cool that the electric co-op stepped up and did that for us,” he says. “But we still have so many more questions.”
Does your small or medium-sized co-op have an innovative program or unique solution to share? Send Thinking Big ideas to Erin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.