Survey Says!

As a private locating company, we regularly field calls from surveyors frustrated by the lack of response to their locate requests. Here in Minnesota, like Oregon, Virginia, and other states, the One Call law provides a nonexcavate option for surveyors and design engineers. Under the Minnesota statute, survey requests are given twice the usual 48- hour response time and operators are required to mark unless “both parties agree otherwise.” Unfortunately, even though operators are granted additional time to respond to survey requests, these tickets are frequently ignored by field locators. Some surveyors have taken to calling in meet requests, while others plead for markings by adding “ALL UTILITIES MUST MARK WITH PAINT AND FLAGS” to the comments on their requests.

When a surveyor contacts us to try and get marks on public facilities, we turn them away because to serve them would violate the integrity of the One Call system. It would also insert us into a situation where we don’t belong: marking utilities we don’t have permission to access, without maps, and for which someone else generally has a contract. Instead, we offer to mark the private utilities, explain the law, explain our position, and explain the legal remedies available to the requester. Typically, a threat to notify the enforcement body brings a swift response on the part of the locator. This means they know they’re supposed to mark; they’re just deciding not
to. The question is, why?

In a system that places a finite time constraint on an unlimited workload, locating technicians and the com-panies they work for have learned to prioritize risk. Prioritizing risk isn’t necessarily wrong. In fact, it’s a  valuable life skill we all practice every day, so let’s not be terribly judgmental that locating technicians do it. An underground bore that runs through a major intersection is more likely to cause a costly damage than installing a road sign, which is more likely to cause a damage than installing a pet fence, which is more likely to cause a damage than performing a survey. Damage is more likely to occur on a ticket that is past due than one that is almost due, and more likely to occur on one that is almost due than one that isn’t due until tomorrow.

This type of mental risk management has become an integral, and valuable, part of the decision tree (official or not) in the locating world and certainly has its counterpart on the other side of the equation. And it works… until it doesn’t! Which leads us back to the frustrated surveyors.

In many ways, they represent the culmination of decades of work to bring awareness to damage prevention. The maps those surveyors are creating
are typically being done in advance of some larger project so plans can be made to deal safely with existing underground infrastructure. That survey work is the result of people who have gotten the message. The same is true of those “nuisance” homeowners with their tulip beds and vegetable gardens. All those billboards, radio ads and bill inserts finally worked.

The locating community should be grateful for each locate request no matter how trivial it may seem and never let our internal risk management culture act as an excuse to underserve, or fail to serve, a customer. Our liveli-hoods and our reputations depend on it.

Christopher Koch is a training consultant and President of ZoneOne Locating. He is past president of Nulca and worked on both the 2009 and 2015 revisions to the Nulca Professional Competency Standard. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @kochauthor.

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