History 101: Evolution of the Common Ground Alliance

(Editor’s Note: James Anspach gave the keynote address at the 2016 CCGA Damage Prevention Symposium in Banff, Alberta. The following article is captured from that address.)

The evolution of utility damage practices and the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) formation is a lesson in how a convergence of serendipitous events, personal relationships, advances in technology and public awareness can sometimes lead to a good end  is the start of such a comprehensive story. I encourage anyone with additional facts, dates, names and events to add to, and correct, this narrative before we lose this history.

Back in 1964, Bell Telephone in upstate New York established the first One Call Center as a mechanism to allow contractors to call “Ma Bell” before digging so that telephone plants could be protected. What a great idea that has grown since then. Congress created the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) in 1968 to oversee and implement the pipeline safety regulations that were published as the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968.

In the 1970s, Bill Kiger formed PA One Call in the Pittsburgh area, which eventually merged with AT&T’s JUNE (Joint Utility Notification for Excavators) Center (commissioned in 1975) in the Philadelphia area in 1976. Somewhere around this time frame, One Call Systems International began holding annual meetings. I remember attending some of these meetings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were also regional meetings bringing together utility owners, contractors, municipalities, other project development agencies and every once in a while, a consultant or two. It was in 1978 that I was invited by Bill Kiger to attend such a meeting in the Philadelphia area to talk about a brand new pipe and cable locator, the Metrotech 810, and the science that made it work. Previous to this instrument, pipe and cable locators were few and of the “split-box” type, affectionately called M-Scopes (whether they were actually an M-Scope or not). There were a few instruments for measuring currentfaults for corrosion control by gas companies and every water company relied on “witching” sticks. There were few individuals or companies in the country that were doing utility markings for damage prevention that weren’t full-time employees of the utility companies themselves. There were no contract locators, there was no concept of multiticket responses by a single locator and there was
no talk of science behind locating – it was truly described as an “art.”

I first met several key players in damage prevention in the late 1970s while performing investigations
of gas explosions. Charlie Batten of the NTSB and Mel Judah, an attorney with OPS, were tasked with investigating damages to gas pipelines caused by excavation. We met at the site of one such explosion and struck up what turned out to be long and satisfying friendships, although we would not cross paths again until 1983.

In the early 1980s, cable TV was relatively new. In the northern Virginia area, a company named Media General (MG) wanted a franchise Atright to bring cable to the citizens. However, there were many areas within the county where all utilities were underground and the county did not want new poles placed in the right-of-way. Purchasing new rights-of-way was too expensive and time consuming so MG negotiated with Virginia Power to utilize VP’s existing easements in exchange for cash and for marking, protecting and being responsible for all VP utilities and other utilities within VP’s easements. So began a project-driven forced partnership between utility owner(s), contractors and a non-utility owned locate firm. Vacuum-excavated test holes were done on all gas and water lines in the road where cable was to be bored. (Although this is not a history of subsurface utility engineering, this project is really where it had its beginnings and where the differentiation of the terms “locating” and “designating” started, still a source of confusion today between the contracting world and the engineering world, but that’s for another history piece.)

I reconnected with Charlie Batten during this time and took him out to the field to see both locating and test hole practices. I remember this very clearly because seat belts were relatively new and not in common use. Charlie refused to get in the car until I had buckled up and explained how the govern-ment was going to pass a regulation regarding mandatory seat belt use in the future, even if people didn’t want it or know why they needed it. We talked for hours about the role of government in developing public safety regulations and the undocumented, but significant, costs borne by society. It is interesting (to me at least) that we headed over to OPS to continue the discussion with Mel Judah, even though NTSB and OPS were supposedly on different “sides” of the government and didn’t like each other’s meddling. Bear with me as all this will fit together at some point.

In 1985, Washington Gas Light’s (WGL) union went on strike and I got a panicked call at 4 a.m. from the VP of WGL asking if I could have 20 “locators” ready to do WGL’s One Call tickets that morning. By juggling my crews from MG and other work, I said “sure” and so began doing “normal” tickets for a utility owner. Tickets done on a per unit basis were a lot different than hourly work on the MG project. It seemed like most of our time was spent traveling from one ticket to the next and figuring out the
best routing given workload, time of day, number and extent of tickets to be done before heading home for the night. On almost every ticket we ran into other utility company employees doing the same thing. It made sense to try to get the same cooperation and system we had in place for the MG project – one firm doing all the locating at a particular site. This would certainly increase efficiency while lowering costs. With physicist and mathematician Jeff Oakley, we developed a mathematical formula, populated it with actual field data and presented it to other utility owners as a concept for a multi-ticket response. About this time, C&P Telephone became part of Bell Atright lantic. C&P’s VP, Happy Hash (yes, that is his real name) took this concept to the regional Bell companies and promoted the efficiency, liability sharing and cost sharing of multi-ticket locating, and it rapidly became a nation-wide practice.

In 1986, I was approached by a fellow I knew from the OCSI meetings, Ron Rosencrans. Ron said he wanted to start a magazine called Underground Focus that would be all about spreading the gospel of utility damage prevention and current practices. I was proud to be Ron’s first advertiser and I also wrote a regular column called “The Engineer’s View” to draw a distinction between this new thing called subsurface utility engineering and One Call damage prevention.

Then there was a disaster that made national headlines. A petroleum pipeline was ruptured in Mounds View, Minnesota, that killed two people and forced the evacuation of hundreds. The “river of fire” was the subject of an NTSB report (by Charlie Batten of course), and resulted in the 1988 Pipeline Safety Reauthorization Act. This law required all states to establish One Call coverage for pipelines, amongst other requirements. The NDPC started to take on more significance after this legislation.

In 1991, Reva Reed of the Ohio Bell Telephone Company (with great support from Paul Scott of FHWA) organized and began holding a yearly national conference called the National Highway/Utility Conference. It brought together a wide range of utility owners, highway agencies and consultants to deal with utility issues, including utility damage prevention. This conference was very popular and demonstrated that stakeholders from different groups could get together in a collegial atmosphere to discuss contentious issues.

The early 1990s ushered in yet another trio of events that had a profound effect on the development of the Common Ground Alliance. Edison, New Jersey and Allentown, Pennsylvania, both saw explosions caused by excavation damage and Fairfax County, Virginia, was terrorized by a large amount of gasoline following its sewer system trenching. Many D.C. lawmakers lived in Fairfax and this incident did not go unnoticed.

About this time (1990), Walt Kelly was appointed to the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety. Those of us who know Walt know him to be well spoken, personable and a quick study. In 1994, after getting his feet wet regarding damage prevention, Walt was hired by the USDOT OPS to “craft and develop” (his words) a national campaign for utility damage prevention. Jerry Posten, Director of Infrastructure for the FHWA, helped get funding in the transportation bill for this campaign. As part of Walt’s crafting process, he helped get damage prevention on the program at the 1994 APWA Annual meeting in Minneapolis. As he tells me, he was trying to come up with an idea to keep everyone at the Conference until the very last session. What better idea than to have a panel consisting of Charlie Batten, Charlie’s boss (NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, former Chief of Staff for TN Senator Al Gore), the head of OPS, a contractor, a labor union executive and a utility owner. Charlie ascertained that maybe there was some value in getting these disparate stakeholders in damage prevention together in a national summit, since it appeared as if these stakeholders held common goals, even if they did not see eye-to-eye at all.

In 1994, the OPS and NTSB jointly held the Safety Workshop in Arlington. We had about six speakers or so, and the room was packed with a wide range of utility owners, consultants, agencies, locators, excavators, One Call centers, and railroad operators who then went to work in groups to provide ideas for solutions to damage problems. As a consequence of this workshop, NTSB published “Protecting Public Safety through Excavation Safety Damage” in 1997. Walt, Charlie, Paul Scott of FHWA and I developed a series of recommendations in this report that were issued to the Research and Special Programs Administration, American Public Works Association, Federal Highway Administration, Association of American Railroads, American Short Line Railroad Association, American Society of Civil Engineers and the Associated General Contractors of America. We can see the results of these recommendations today by many of these organizations, the latest being the commissioning of ASCE’s
ninth Institute, the Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute, recognizing knowledge of utility infrastructure as a fundamental part of civil engineering practice.

In 1998, TEA21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century) was passed, which authorized a study of damage prevention practices. The Research and Special Programs Administration put together a study team after discussions with Walt, Charlie, Paul, Jim Barron, Stacey Gerard, Allen Gray, Don Evans and myself (sorry if I missed anyone). As a result of these early discussions, a two-day public meeting was held in August of 1998, and a name, the Common Ground Study, was brought forth. Two “administrative” teams (Steering Team, Linking Team) and nine “task teams” were formed. Those teams included: Planning and Design, One Call Centers, Locating and Marking, Excavation, Mapping, Compliance, Public Awareness and Education, Reporting and Evaluation and Emerging Technologies.

The following information was taken directly from the Common Ground Alliance’s March 2011 document entitled “Best Practices 8.0.”

In July 1999, eleven months after the kick-off meeting in Arlington, and after many intense meetings
throughout the country, the Common Ground Study, which identified and validated over 130 “Best Practices” to enhance safety and prevent damages to underground facilities, was presented to the Secretary of Transportation.

After the Common Ground Study was presented to the Secretary, and with the support of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who recognized the importance of this document, it was decided that the work of the Common Ground Study should be continued and the Best Practices document should become a living document. PHMSA was asked to facilitate and sponsor what became known as the Damage Prevention Path Forward. On June 15, 2000, the work of the team was completed when the Common Ground Alliance received its Certificate of Incorporation from the District of Columbia.

And there you have it, a little history from 1964 through 2000. One person’s condensed, and likely
incomplete, history of how the Common Ground Alliance came to be.

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