Why the Pandemic Makes Utility Damage Prevention More Important Than Ever

The COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have posed unplanned challenges for the utilities and midstream asset operators responsible for protecting critical infrastructure. Not only are utilities operating with strained resources, but at the same time the threats to energy infrastructure have only increased with excavations on the rise. In fact, Texas811 data shows that there were 8.3% more damages to underground energy infrastructure in April of this year than in April of 2019, and damage rates have been climbing month over month since the start of the pandemic. 

When a damage to an underground asset could cripple a medical facility on the front lines of the pandemic, damage prevention has never been more critical. Utilities are stepping up during these extraordinary times, but tackling a challenge of this magnitude requires more than hard work; it requires new approaches and new technology.

DAMAGE PREVENTION IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT EVEN IN THE BEST OF TIMES. TACKLING THE CHALLENGE DURING A PANDEMIC CAN SEEM IMPOSSIBLE. TO ADAPT, UTILITIES NEED TO ACCELERATE THEIR ADOPTION OF ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES, INCLUDING PREDICTIVE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI), TO UNDERSTAND RISK.

Third-Party Damage Risk is Rising

Commercial construction is accelerating. Most states have deemed construction an essential service and have allowed operations to continue with protective measures in place. Local governments and contractors are taking advantage of empty highways, streets, and business districts to accelerate work. Locate requests in Texas were up 18% from April to May as work accelerated across the state. 

The uptick extends to the home as well. People sheltering in place are taking advantage of the increased time at home and warm weather to tackle home improvement and landscaping projects. Between March 23, when the Texas stay-at-home orders went into effect, and May 15th, homeowner online ticket submissions to Texas811 were up 140%, indicating a massive rise in homeowner digging projects. Homeowners are less likely to call 811 prior to embarking on projects than professional excavators are, and utilities around the country are bracing for a spike in unsafe digging.

The Stakes Could Not Be Higher

Third-party damage can impact infrastructure critical to the COVID-19 response, including hospitals, fire stations, and emergency dispatch centers. With hospitals already overwhelmed, they cannot afford power outages or gas leaks. A damage to the wrong asset could cost lives. 

Although much has changed in our lives with the pandemic, damage prevention is more important than ever. Public awareness campaigns can have a meaningful impact, but damage prevention is about more than calling 811. Utilities need robust systems in place to understand which of the millions of 811 tickets they receive are the riskiest to stop the most possible damages and save lives.

The Role of Technology

Damage prevention is extremely difficult even in the best of times. Tackling the challenge during a pandemic can seem impossible. To adapt, utilities need to accelerate their adoption of advanced technologies, including predictive artificial intelligence (AI), to understand risk. 

We are seeing utilities across the country leveraging AI to assign risk scores to 811 tickets. They are even able to use these new tools to analyze the consequence of a damage to see whether a specific dig runs the risk of a catastrophic outcome like taking a hospital offline.

Utility companies do not always get credit for the vital work they do to provide Americans with the heat, power, water, and communications we all need to live our lives. During this pandemic, a society stuck at home is waking up to their importance. Utilities are the front-line workers in the battle to keep critical infrastructure working so that society can fight this virus. With damage prevention moving into the spotlight, utilities must innovate to rise to the occasion.

Dr. Lindsay Jenkins is Director of Utility Solutions at Urbint, and Kyle VanLandingham is Director of Customized Solutions for Texas811.

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