About five years ago in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, a surveyor nicked a plastic gas line with an iron pin. At the time, nothing happened. But the following winter, a snow plow hit the pin, and a nearby house blew up.
The surveyor had not called his state’s “one-call number” before setting the pin – and the consequences proved catastrophic.
Fortunately, occurrences of surveyors causing damage to underground infrastructure are rare. “I know it happens, but the damages (so far) have been of a nature that they have not made a big enough story for it to be widely told,” said Curt Sumner, president of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ASCM).
John Scrivner worked as an accident and claims investigator for Avista Corporation, which owns electric and gas utilities in eastern Washington state and northern Idaho: “I investigated cases involving surveyors pounding their survey stakes into the ground without first calling for locates. They damaged both high-voltage electric distribution lines and high-pressure gas lines. These accidents could have been catastrophic.”
The National Utility Locating Contractors Association (NULCA) sent a survey in February 2003 to primary members asking if they had encountered problems with surveyors hitting public or private utility lines.
“Overall, we found there was not a problem (among surveyors),” said Mike Bell, immediate past-president of NULCA. “But that doesn’t mean surveyors shouldn’t use their state’s one-call system. These systems are mandated – they’re the law. It’s in everyone’s best interest to call before any kind of digging, even if it’s to set a pin or a monument.”
There exists the potential for lawsuits should a surveyor or an excavator not properly use the applicable one-call system. “Utility companies do pursue restitution from those who damage their facilities,” Bell added.
ONE-CALL SYSTEMS, EXCAVATION, AND WHO’S AFFECTED
What exactly is a one-call system? Literally, it’s a telephone hotline – oftentimes an 800 number – designed to initiate the process of providing no-cost utility marking in the name of damage prevention. The service is for contractors, homeowners, and anyone else who disturbs the earth, including surveyors.
Definitions of what it means to “disturb the earth” vary from state to state. In Virginia, for example, to disturb the earth – to excavate – means any operation in which earth, rock, or other material in the ground is moved, removed, or otherwise displaced by means of any tools, equipment, or explosives. Excavation includes grading, trenching, digging, ditching, dredging, drilling, augering, tunneling, scraping, cable or pipe plowing and driving, wrecking, razing, rendering, moving, or removing any structure or mass of material. (Source: Miss Utility Excavator’s Manual.)
In other words, anyone disturbing the earth even a few inches – especially those using mechanized equipment to do so – should use their state’s one-call system to determine where utilities are located.
“Many people are under the assumption that utilities are buried at 36 inches or greater, but this is not always the case,” Bell said.
Construction activities, grading changes, settling of the earth, and poor installation practices often can leave a utility much shallower than 3 feet. A utility company in Virginia reported that its infrastructure is as shallow as just 1 foot under the ground.
“My own personal feeling is that even real estate agents using augers to dig holes for ‘For Sale’ signs should call,” Bell said.
EXAMPLES OF ONE-CALL SYSTEMS
Each state (or a collection of states) has a one-call system. Some are state-operated; in other cases, the state government or a group of utilities contracts with a private company to administer the one-call system. How these systems work and what kinds of information they require from callers vary from state to state.
A study sponsored by the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Special Programs Administration was conducted to determine the best of existing one-call notification systems and underground facility damage-prevention practices. OPS then sponsored an initiative that led to creation of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of damage-prevention best practices. CGA is supported by a variety of stakeholders, including utility owners, contractors, and private firms. Since its inception, CGA has produced a “dig safely” video and also has published eight best-practices brochures that address each part of the damage-prevention process, including:
- One-Call Systems
- Planning and design
- Reporting and evaluation
- Public education
- Locating and marking
CGA also offers a toll-free national referral number to other state’s one-call numbers (1-888-258-0808) as well as a Web site that lists phone numbers and Web links of each state’s one-call system (www.digsafely.com/OneCallNumbers.htm).
Two examples of one-call systems and how they work:
• Minnesota’s one-call system, known as “Gopher State One Call,” grew out of a response to a pipeline accident in 1986. Minnesota law now requires anyone who engages in any type of excavation with motorized equipment to provide advance notice of at least two working days to Gopher State One Call. The utility-locating service is free to callers, according to its Web site (www.gopherstateonecall.org).
Gopher State One Call is unique in a number of ways: It is one of very few statewide one-call centers in the country that not only covers a large geographic area but also requires utility owners and anyone who has underground facilities in the road right-of-way to belong to the system. The Gopher State One Call has received overwhelming acceptance since formally launching operations in 1988. The center handled 780,000 communications in its first year and topped 1 million in its second. Today, Gopher State One Call handles more than 5 million communications annually.
When a contractor, surveyor, or homeowner calls Gopher, the answering attendant asks the caller a series of questions, including contact information, exact digging location, and how long the digging will take place. “Being prepared to make the call will save the caller time and it can increase the accuracy of the locate from the utility company,” said Gopher’s General Manager Tonya Bethke.
The attendant enters the information about the digging site into a computer, applying that information to an online mapping system. This mapping system indicates what facilities need to be notified of the excavation. Once the facilities are determined, the attendant releases all information to the affected facilities, and the lines then are marked by the applicable utility owners. The caller must wait two working days before beginning excavation to allow the applicable utility owners time to mark the site. Once the 48-hour wait period is over, digging must begin within 96 hours – waiting longer voids the original ticket to dig.
Gopher warns diggers that they must be aware that markings are estimates of the exact location of the underground facility. Locators have a 2-foot buffer zone where diggers must hand dig to expose that facility for positive location. If an underground facility gets hit or damaged, 911 must be called if the digger has hit a flammable, toxic or corrosive gas or liquid or endangers life, health, or property. Also, the utility owners must be notified of damage, no matter how minor.
The state continues to invest heavily in state-of-the-art one-call technology and is enhancing its computer mapping system to stay on the cutting edge of one-call advancements. Two full-time Gopher One-Call representatives travel the state educating about 3,000 contractors and excavators annually about the importance of using the one-call system, said Michelle Stange, public relations coordinator.
• “Miss Utility” is the one-call system for Virginia. In 1995, two nonprofit associations of utility companies formed: Virginia Underground Utility Protection Service, Inc. and Northern Virginia Utility Protection Service, Inc. These associations recently formed a limited liability company, Virginia Utility Protection Service (VUPS) LLC, for the purpose of operating a nonprofit one-call center. VUPS began operations last July for most of Virginia and will begin serving northern Virginia on July 1 of this year, according to Dave Price, director of communications for VUPS (www.missutilityofvirginia.com). The northern Virginia association currently uses a private vendor to operate its one-call system.
Like Gopher, Virginia’s one-call systems notify subscribing underground utility owners of a caller’s proposed excavation plans. The service is provided free to callers by member utility companies.
The Virginia Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act requires that Miss Utility be called 48 hours in advance of the planned work to allow time for marking, that the marks be respected and protected, and that excavation is completed carefully. The Virginia system provides a “positive response” to let callers know whether the utilities notified have completed the marking process.
PRIVATELY OWNED FACILITIES
Oftentimes, a surveyor must set a pin, a stake, or a monument on private property. Private utilities can be found on military bases and college campuses, in industrial areas and mobile-home parks, on the properties of single-family and multi-family homes, at shopping centers, and sometimes in the road right-of-way.
Privately owned utilities also generally include those utilities that are installed behind or after the meter. If overhead distribution lines serve the property and the power is then distributed on the property by underground service facilities, those service facilities may be considered private. If the homeowner’s electric meter is located on the property line, then that electric line from the meter to the house is considered privately owned and may not be able to be located by a public one-call system.
Other private facilities to be aware of include:
- Private water systems
- Data communication lines
- Underground sprinkler systems
- Other gas or propane lines (such as for gas grills and pool heaters)
Unless the property owner participates as a member of his or her state’s one-call system, private or customer-owned facilities generally are not marked or notified. Surveyors with questions about whether a facility in an excavation area is considered private or not are strongly encouraged to first contact the state’s one-call system and then, if necessary, the applicable local utility offices. Private locating firms or engineering firms with utility marking and mapping capabilities such as Woolpert should be contacted if private utilities are involved.
LIABILITY AND THE LAW
Because there is no assurance that buried facilities will be deeper than the pins being driven, calling in an excavation notice can prevent time and energy loss fighting damage claims even when a notice is not required, according to Walt Kelly, a damage prevention consultant.
Should an accident occur when digging, being “ignorant” or “unaware” of the law may not exempt surveyors and others who did not use their state’s one-call system.
In Virginia Beach, Va., a 2-inch gas main was damaged by a survey crew setting a property corner pin. The crew had not called Miss Utility’s one-call system in advance, and the surveying company was fined $500. In Mechanicsville, Va., a gas line was damaged in the same way, resulting in a civil penalty of $300 to the surveying firm, with $100 suspended upon completion of a safety-training course.
In Connecticut, civil penalties for failing to use the state’s “Call Before You Dig” system are based on the severity of the resulting incident, according to Bill Petersen, center manager. “We look at whether someone was hurt or killed, if there was a significant utility outage, and if there is a past-history of non-compliance,” Petersen said. “First-time ‘offenders’ who don’t use the one-call system and cause minor damage must attend a one-call safety course.”
Petersen said he realizes a lot of surveyors and excavators are sensitive to the issue of fines, liability, and lawsuits. “In some cases, even if they’ve used the one-call system, and an accident still occurs, it may not be (the surveyor’s) fault because the utility owner may have mis-marked its own lines. Five years ago, a phone company was fined $43,000 and an electric company $46,000 for mis-marking. The law is enforced fairly,” Petersen said.
Washington and Idaho, like many states, also have statutes that allow for recovery of damages if a surveyor or an excavator fails to call for locates in advance, according to Scrivner, who now independently consults for insurance carriers, law firms, and utilities. “I’ve aggressively pursued cases in order to help utilities recover costs as well as for the benefit of public safety,” Scrivner said.
CALL BEFORE YOU DIG
It’s a simple rule to remember, and it’s the law. Calling before digging can save surveyors from finger-pointing, fines, bad publicity, and angry bosses. More important, calling before digging can save money, infrastructure, and lives.