Electricians Without Borders Interview

     Nearly two months ago, an article in my union locals newsletter caught my eye about  a non-governmental organization called Electricians Without Borders. They are a group of volunteer electricians, paying their own travel to communities in need, to share their talents and time. This sounded awesome and I had to know more. I dug into their EWBUSA website and discovered this San Francisco based group has been running jobs since 2010 all around the world.  They work with The  Sextant Foundation, and Project Hope to build health care facilities in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, The Philippines, Honduras, as well as close to home in the Bay Area with a Humanity project.

Check out their mission statement: To improve the quality of life in underserved communities around the world by bringing innovative and sustainable energy solutions within the healthcare sector.

I had the opportunity to correspond via facebook with Jeff Rodriguez, founder and CEO of EWBUSA.

KLA: Can you give me a brief history as to how you got started with Electricians Without Borders and when?

JEFF: EWBUSA started when a friend of mine that owns an electrical/mechanical design firm, who specializes in hospital design, whom I’ve worked with and known for 30 years was taken to Haiti after the earthquake in 2009 to evaluate health centers with Project Hope, Doctors Without Borders and another NGO.  When he returned he really wanted to help, but being a designer and not a construction person, he contacted me and asked if I would like to get involved.  Obviously, I said yes.  
There is a little hospital in Northern Haiti run by the Crudem Foundation, Hospital Socre Coure, that requested help with their electrical system.  They have no utility power in Haiti and the hospital limped along on two old generators.  They continuously were experiencing outages and fires at the connections on the poles.  
We did a survey and Mazzetti & Associates created a design to replace the existing electrical distribution system for free and I started gathering electricians.  
One of the big contractors in the San Francisco Bay Area contacted their distributors and requested donations of materials.  They collected over $150K worth of materials.  Someone donated a shipping container and we shipped it to the site.
This began a complete replacement of the electrical distribution system and replacement of all the electrical in the operating rooms, ICU and emergency areas of the hospital.  The replacement of the overhead feeders to underground.   It also include 20 KW of solar to offset the cost of fuel when running the generators and installation of two new generators over a five year period.  We went down twice a year for a month at a time with rotating crews of electricians.

KLA:How do you find gigs and how is it decided which ones to take on?

JEFF: Currently my friend Walt, who is the CEO of Mazzetti and founder of Sextant Foundation, goes all over the world and meets with different organizations, such as WHO, United Nations Foundation, Project Hope, and many more.  
Organizations contact me directly requesting help also.  If it involves healthcare, we collect the details.  
Most of what we do are electrical retrofits and solar.  If it fits what we can do, I usually travel to the site and design the project and scope out resources.  And put together a budget.  

KLA:What sort of installs do you do?

JEFF: Lately we have been installing solar a lot.  All of our work is in healthcare facilities.  One small site the helps a large number of people, mostly women and children.  We rebuild electrical distributions, upgrade lighting and other power needs.  But we have also rebuild small clinics including roofs, rainwater capture/water purification systems, and anything that is needed from construction oriented people.  Most people that go have a lot of other skills besides electrical.

KLA: Is volunteering open to union and non-union workers?

JEFF: Most of the team has been union electricians, mainly because I am a IBEW Local 6 member and so are two of my sons.  So most people that have gone so far are from there.  Anyone can be involved in our missions.  I try to meet up with people prior to deployment to try to get a handle on everyone’s skill set.  Once we are on location, we have to be comfortable with people being able to work safe and teach locals the skills they need.  Coming from the IBEW everyone has been trained the same, no matter where they come from.  We have had non-union electricians on our teams in the past with mixed results.  Some of those from the non-union shops have expressed how much they learned from being on one of these projects.

KLA: How are the projects funded?

JEFF: If Sextant can fund it they do.  Sometimes it’s a hybrid project where an organization will fund a portion and Sextant will fund the rest.  Or people donate funding to Sextant, earmarked for our project.  We aren’t a registered “non-profit”.

KLA: What is a most memorable project or crew you can tell a little anecdote about?

JEFF: In Milot, Haiti at Hospital Socre Coure we had our biggest crew.  It consisted of my friend Bill, who we worked together for 30 years, Claire a journey person of great skill, Justin an electrician with a camera who had gone to a voodoo ceremony the night before and drank some of their drink they were passing around and got sick as a dog, Phil a 70 year old retired journeyman, an anesthesiologist from Chicago and his non-union alcoholic brother from Florida and two apprentices, Brett and my son Ian.
We spent seven days and nights installing all the new transformers, distribution panels, and branch circuit panels to replace the entire infrastructure of the hospital.  We went in at 6:00 PM when the surgeries were finished and began cutting over from the old to the new.  In a two story 50′ x 50′ hospital,they had 13 panels.  We were cutting everything over to three panels.  It took us till 2:30 in the morning to finish the cut , at which time two volunteer nurses from Alaska came to the hospital with rum and beer to celebrate with us.

KLA: How can people get involved JEFF?

JEFF: Actually, I could use some help the last two weeks of February in Miragoane.  This project is “pushing-out” due to a big pile of bureaucracy with Project Hope.  I have a spot for one person.  All the electrical will be ready to go then.  We have some solar and wiring the building for DC lights and fans.

We could always use donations to offset airfares and lodging at the sites that don’t have “volunteer” facilities.  But they have to be sent to Sextant Foundation, earmarked for “Electricians Without Borders USA”.  They do a great job of accepting the donations and tracking the expenditures for us.

KLA: Thanks for the interview Jeff, I look forward to hearing more from EWBUSA and hopefully volunteering with you one day!

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