Those of us who have been in the industry for a long time often take the One Call process for granted. One trip to the field often brings me back to the realization that not everyone understands how the system works. Hearing things like, “I called 811 and One Call came out and marked my lines” from homeowners and excavators just reinforces the need for continued education.
Let’s start with the One Call center which received the call. First, with few exceptions (most notably Arkups in Arkansas), One Call centers don’t locate utility lines. They receive the notification, whether by phone, fax, email or online, and then send it out to their members (the facility owner) for the actual response.
It is important to remember that not all utility owners may be members of the One Call system. Some states may not require membership while others may have mandatory membership but don’t have any enforcement of this requirement. Either way, depending on the state, a One Call center may require more than one call to reach all utility owners in the area.
Fortunately, many One Call centers will let the caller know when not all parties are notified. Their websites may also provide valuable resources to help find these nonmembers. These utility owners need to be notified separately, so that they can also respond and mark the area requested.
Once the call is received at the One Call center, detailed excavator information is collected along with the parameters of the work. This work is plotted in a mapping system that contains areas where member utility companies have underground lines. These areas can be very precise or vast in scope. For example, a transmission pipeline company may have a very narrow area that precisely follows their right-of-way, while a distribution phone company may highlight an entire community or county. If the work area touches the designated utility area, they will be included in the locate request and notified to respond. If the work area does not touch a specific utility’s area, no notification will be given to that utility.
The notification to the utility can happen in several ways. The utility company may utilize their own employees to respond to the locate request so the notification only goes to the utility company. The owner may utilize a third party or contract locating company to respond to these requests. In this case, the notification may be directly routed to the locating company. In some cases, the utility may choose to receive the request and do its own screening prior to sending it on to their contract locator. This requires the utility company to have very accurate mapping to avoid errors. When the notification goes out to contract locators, they typically have complex systems in place to automatically route the request to the appropriate technician. In many cases, these technicians have specific geographic coverage areas making notification easy.
Upon receiving notification, the technician has a specific amount of time to respond to the request. This varies from state to state and by type of request, but is generally some variation of 48 to 72 hours for
standard or routine requests. (S)he will then go to the site and begin to perform the locate by checking utility records, looking around for signs of utilities not shown on the records and using the locate equipment to mark the facilities involved. If no utility lines are present, the technician will typically mark the area as “clear” for each utility. In reality, this is a much more complicated process than laid out here. The technician may be responsible for several different types of utility at each site. Add in emergency requests that are received throughout the day as well as the large number of requests received each day and questions on completed requests, and it becomes easy to see how locating can be a stressful occupation.
Once all the notified utility companies, or their representatives, have completed their work, it may seem like it is time to dig. This may not be true. Many sites contain privately owned utility lines that are not covered by the One Call system. The definition of a private utility can vary across the country, but in general, there is a place where the ownership of a utility transitions to the property owner. In many cases, this occurs at a meter. For example, water services between the meter and the building are typically considered private and will not be located by the technician. Most One Call centers can help clarify what
constitutes a private utility in that state.
Most property owners don’t understand
the need to locate these lines and are not
qualified to do so. For this reason, there
are private locating companies across
North America that will be happy to take
on the task. Many One Call centers list
private utility locating companies on their website. Nulca has a directory of member companies that also perform this type of work at Nulca.org.
Once the excavation starts, the scene changes forever. Therefore, locating technicians, both public and private, should take photographs and/or videos of the area, including the marks and the proposed excavation area. The excavator should also take pictures after the locates are complete and before they begin their work. They should also take photos or video of any potholing activity that takes place. Potholing is the act of determining the exact location of a utility line by safe and acceptable means, which is typically hand digging or using vacuum excavation.
Once all of this is complete, the excavator may now begin the work. If the marks become illegible due to work, weather or time, the excavator should call 811 to update or refresh the request and the process begins again.
The preceding was a general overview of the process once 811 has been called. It is not intended to be a checklist for excavation, but rather an explanation of the system for those who are not familiar with it. Entire articles have been written about each step in the process and the rules change from state to state. Next time you see an excavation site, think about all the steps in the process and everything that had to be done correctly to make the job safe. Damage prevention is a shared responsibility and calling 811 is the first step to safe excavation.
In addition to providing utility locating training services, damage prevention and investigation services as owner of Ron Peterson Consulting, LLC, Ron has held the position of Executive Director of NULCA since 2009. Ron’s background includes over 20 years of experience in the underground utility industry.