Using Research to Improve Damage Prevention in North Carolina

The damage prevention industry has always understood that data collection is critical. Data measures our progress and our challenges; data paves the way forward and sometimes serves to change the fundamental way the industry operates. North Carolina 811 recognized the importance of data gathering and analysis in 2013 and began in earnest by consolidating data from One Call tickets, damage reports, and marketing efforts into what became known as the “Supermega Spreadsheet.”

In 2017, Dr. Ahmed Al-Bayati was engaged to take a more academic approach to the data analysis. During that time, it was identified that cross-validation of the raw data could be performed with surveys.

The initial results of the research confirmed, in North Carolina at least, that a significant challenge to the One Call process was on-time locates. Data from positive response was confirmed through surveys conducted with professional and “first time” excavators.

Based on the results, Dr. Al-Bayati and I wanted to know more about the challenges experienced by professional locators. There are few problems that are black and white. Understanding the issues that impact locators helps to arrive at solutions for the overall process.

In 2019, surveys were sent to locators throughout the U.S. and 98 were returned completed. The individuals responding ranged from contract locators (66%) to those working directly for a municipality or operator. The range of experience was from a few years of field experience to Supervisors and Managers. The questions were designed to allow locators to rank challenges in order of priority. There was also allowance for free-form responses.

As a follow up to the answers we received, two focus groups were formed. Again, a mix of locator type and experience was included. The issues faced include the quality of maps shared with the locators, broken tracer wires, tickets for which work wasn’t taking place, false emergency requests, lack of access in some cases, use of excavation tickets for design requests, lack of white lining and incorrect information on locate requests.

While these are not offered as excuses, it points out the complicated issues surrounding on-time locates. As we explore root causes in North Carolina we look into issues like update tickets. The law requires excavators to update their requests when the work is to exceed the 15 working day life of the ticket. Looking specifically at tickets where the work duration was indicated to be “1 day or less”, we discovered thousands of tickets per month that had been updated more than twice. These “low hanging fruit” opportunities opened the conversation with contractors and the companies hiring them to discover what could be done in these cases to better manage the process.

Using data to direct actions is the best method to break the bad habits and change the behaviors of all those involved in the process. It often only takes a single disruption to set off a chain reaction in delays that can cascade down, add to delays, increase risk and jeopardize the entire safe digging process wheel. Safe excavation is absolutely a shared responsibility. We hope that leveraging data can not only identify “stress points” and “system noise” but also draw attention to the controllable actions impacting performance in the field.


Research may be found at nc811.org.

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