The mailman has long been recognized for braving rain, sleet and snow to ensure mail gets delivered in a timely manner (bills included). But what about the men and women behind the bills -- the meter readers of the world, who are charged with reading millions of meters a month to ensure utility bills are accurate and on time?
According to Florida Power & Light Company, among the work-place challenges meter readers face, some of the biggest are staying safe and healthy. Among other things, that means avoiding dog bites from pets determined to protect home and property. Fortunately the incidents of dog attacks have dropped sharply at FPL in recent years, thanks in part to what may seem an unusual line of defense -- a telescoping umbrella.
The umbrella is just one of the tools used by FPL meter readers for personal safety and protection, but it's proving to be both low tech and pet friendly. Whenever a dog approaches a meter reader in a threatening manner, the umbrella can be activated in the direction of the animal.
"The popping sound first startles the dog," said Andy Duzyk, FPL's north area manager for meter reading. "Then the umbrella provides a barrier between the dog and reader."
Florida Power & Light Company is one of the largest electric service providers in the country, so its meter reading employees have the potential to meet a lot of dogs.
"Our service territory stretches from Miami to Georgia and along the West coast of Florida from Bradenton to Naples," said Duzyk. "Our 450 meter readers read about 4.2 million meters every month. When you consider that about 42 percent of the homes in America have dogs (often more than one), our meter readers have the potential of meeting about 84,000 dogs a day.
"Clearly, most are well-behaved and secured by their owners," Duzyk said, "but those that aren't do cause us concern at times for the safety of our 450 meter reader employees."
The umbrella program started as an FPL pilot project in 1996. Since its adoption, FPL has seen a dramatic decrease in dog bite injuries. According to Duzyk, five years ago more than half the injuries meter readers experienced were from dog bites. Today that's down to 18 percent. Duzyk hopes FPL customers will help drive it even lower.
"An umbrella doesn't harm a dog -- it's a good first line of defense," Duzyk said. "While our readers are equipped with other protective devices, such as pepper spray, the umbrella is the preferred choice. Most of us are dog-owners as well, so we want to keep interaction to a minimum.
"Our goal is simple, we want to render customers with timely, accurate bills in a safe manner," said Duzyk.
The best way to ensure an accurate reading, according to Duzyk, is by physically checking the meter. Unlike mail boxes, meters are seldom if ever in front of the house. Usually they are on the side or the back of the building -- often behind a fence, hedge or other obstruction.
FPL trains its employees not to enter yards unless animals have been safely secured, either inside the house or garage. But on one occasion, even a garage door wasn't strong enough to hold an overprotective pooch.
Tony Tucci, an FPL meter reader was almost attacked by a pit bull eight years ago. "The dog was inside the garage, but he knocked down the back door," Tucci said. "Back then, all we had was pepper spray, so I sprayed him, but the dog kept coming. So, I used my handheld computer as a shield to ward off the dog. When the customer rushed out and called off the dog, I jumped the fence. The computer had a dime-sized hole, but I was okay."
Three years later, Tucci found himself face to muzzle with a protective rottweiler and deployed the umbrella. "I was on a service call and I entered the yard. The dog came running up to me. I opened the umbrella in his direction, and he ran away," said Tucci. "It's nice knowing you have something between you and the dog. It gives you time, buys you the extra second that you need to get out of harms way."
"We're after an injury-free workplace and we believe that's something everyone can contribute to and support," Duzyk said.
According to FPL, there are a number of ways customers can help ensure a timely, accurate, monthly reading, while lessening the chance that Fido and the meter reader will surprise each other.
One is a reminder on the monthly bill. Just under the account number, FPL notes the "next scheduled read date," so customers can mark it on the calendar.
FPL also offers a "Call Ahead" service for pet owners, which is an automated system that will contact the customer the day before the meter is due for reading, so the pet can be left indoors.
FPL's meter readers also use their umbrellas to move vines and branches out of the way to get a clear view of the meter. In the process, the lowly umbrella contributes to fewer scrapes and scratches and helps cut down on the number of insect bites. And, on rainy days, they can always be used for their original purpose -- staying safe and dry.
Florida Power & Light Company is the principal subsidiary of FPL Group, Inc. , one of the nation's largest providers of electricity-related services with annual revenues of more than $8 billion. The company serves 3.9 million customer accounts in Florida. FPL Energy, LLC, an FPL Group energy- generating subsidiary, is a leader in producing electricity from clean and renewable fuels. Additional information is available on the Internet at www.fpl.com.
SOURCE: FPL Group, Inc.