The Locator’s Role in Enforcement… promoting the awareness and use of safe digging practices


Since July of 2015, Tennessee law has included enforcement which allows individuals to file a complaint through the Tennessee Public Utility Commission (TPUC) if they feel someone is in violation of the Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act. So, what does this mean to the locating world? I talked to a couple of individuals in contract locating to see how enforcement affected them and if they were seeing noticeable improvements in damage prevention from excavators.

The first thing I asked was, “How are contract locate companies handling enforcement?” Jeff Smith, with Heath Consultants, said that, for the most part, their customers were the ones filing complaints when individuals were believed to be in violation of the law. Locators, as contractors, may not want to file a complaint that could cause an alleged violator to become upset with their utility client. It is the safer move and may even be mandated by internal policy. But considering the important role that utility locators play in damage prevention, it begs the question: Can the locating community make a bigger impact on enforcement?

I asked Jeff what the locating community could do to promote the success of the state enforcement programs and his answer was simple, “Be more involved.” Many locators may not know that they are able to file complaints just like a contractor, utility or homeowner can. Maybe they are not familiar with the process of filing a complaint or believe it may be too cumbersome. The fear may exist that the locator must work with the contractors day in and day out and they do not want to harm relationships they have spent years building. While these concerns are valid, if we want to make a difference in damage prevention, we also need to point out violations and actively work to correct them.

I also had an opportunity to talk with Earl Bolin with USIC. Earl is on the Underground Utility Damage Enforcement Board representing contract locators. I asked if he felt that having enforcement in Tennessee has had a positive impact in preventing damage to underground facilities and how USIC was handling the filing of complaints. He stated that they are determining the specifics of their process over time as the enforcement program develops, but for now they do file complaints – primarily for false emergencies. Previously, there was not much you could do as a locator to prevent these from being called in. Now with enforcement, a locator can file a complaint if they receive an emergency ticket and upon arrival determine that it does not meet the legal criteria of an emergency excavation, which Tennessee law defines as an immediate threat to life, health or property, including restoration of services.

Keep in mind, complaints can be turned in by anyone and against anyone that is in violation of the dig law. This means if a locate request is not responded to within 72 hours as required by the law, a complaint can also be filed against the locator for being in violation.

Ultimately, it takes all parties involved doing the right things and working together to truly make a difference in reducing the number of damages to underground facilities. Enforcement is there for accountability, not to point fingers and pass blame. If used correctly, enforcement can promote the awareness and use of safe digging practices by further educating contractors, utilities, locators and even homeowners on the current dig law and their responsibilities each of them carry on each and every excavation.

Jason Kouba is a Damage Prevention Liaison with Tennessee 811. He can be reached at help