Excavator Subcontracts One-Call Notifications
by Walt Kelly
Article first appeared in the January / February 1999 issue of Underground Focus.
“I just want to see the paint on the ground!” That was the main thing on K.C.’s mind. He was 90 miles into a 1,000 mile fiber optic installation on railroad right-of-way and plow crews had already hit seven unmarked facilities. His worry was that someone was going to get killed.
The original plan had seemed simple: call the One-Call center, wait for the paint, use vacuum excavation to expose every single underground facility so its location and size could be measured and databased, then avoid hitting those lines with cable plows and boring equipment. The plan was not working well.
K.C.’s locate crew was out ahead of the plow crew and he was troubled by the lack of paint over facilities indicated by pedestals or other above ground attachments. He was calling the operators of the facilities he knew about, but not all lines had above ground indicators. A 16-inch sewer main that was hit hadn’t been marked because the city locator thought it was 50 feet from the track. It was actually three feet away. Then the locator painted another four water and sewer line markings where the plow had already passed, luckily without hitting them.
Obtaining the phone numbers of the locators was a problem. The numbers were needed when the vacuum excavation crew had dug a hole 15 feet deep for 8 feet on each side of the mark without finding a marked facility. And, there were those times K.C. would find signs of a facility but no markouts. These were times he needed to call the locator and get. him back out to the site.
In addition to getting paint on the ground over all facilities, K.C. wanted copies of the one-call tickets for documentation. He needed to be sure the words he used when he called it in were the same as went out to the facility operators. Also, he needed to know exactly what was on [he ticket when he called locators with questions. He had not been able to get those copies. No one had told him that by using sing the fax-a-locate program, a copy would be sent automatically.
K.C. unloaded these complaints on me when I met him while walking my dog along a railroad track where he was working, and after I expressed some knowledge of the damage prevention process.
“There was some concern at first about me being a subcontractor calling in tickets for the general contractor.”
The first tickets I called were in Wisconsin. Diggers Hotline was very cooperative. There was some concern at first about me being a subcontractor calling in tickets for the general contractor. They wanted the general contractor to call in its own tickets and subs to call in their own. As soon as they understood I used a computer instead of a backhoe in my subcontracting, everything was great. They signed us up on the fax-a-locate program and prepared a computer file of all operators in the counties we were going through and sent us a disk with the name, terminal code, and phone number
As soon as we got to the east side of La Crosse we encountered a problem. Diggers Hotline wanted township names on the tickets, but there are about four township boundaries in a 3-mile stretch and we didn’t know exactly where they were! The phone attendant at the Notification Center said she was not allowed to tell us the names of the townships or the location of those boundaries.
This is the type of situation when it is time to politely thank the attendant and call back in on the administrative line and talk to the center manager to develop a plan.
Our plan utilized the call center’s mapping system. Before requesting a locate, I’d call the center and talk to a supervisor. The supervisor took Latitude/Longitude coordinates from the One-Call automated mapping system for the points where the railroad our crew was following crossed or met town lines. The supervisor gave those coordinates to me and I put them into the “Street Atlas USA(R)” software program. I was then able to see where those boundaries were and write the site descriptions and drive instructions accurately for the ticket.
But, as more crews were added and the volume of tickets jumped, I couldn’t keep tying up the call center supervisor. I needed my own system, and I found a very sophisticated computer mapping system to handle the volume and maps with the town boundaries. Six thousand dollars later I had the hardware and software in place. (One Call is not entirely free for the excavator.)
The very first municipality in Wisconsin turned out to be a non-member of Diggers Hotline. Membership had been mandatory for some time, but like other states with no enforcement, there were a lot of non-members. We developed a system of phone calls, cover letters, maps, and visits to get them to mark their lines and also encouraged them to join the system.
The cover letters and maps got such a positive reaction from the non-member locators that we started preparing and sending them to all facility operators. When a new operator showed up on a One-Call ticked, I called the number given by Diggers, worked through the company until I got to the locating department, had a quick “pre-construction” meeting on the phone. They gave me contact information for their locators, especially the fax and emergency numbers. These operators then received cover letters, maps, and updates as the construction progressed in their area. All construction crews had copies of the expanded operator contact list and maps showing the latest One-Call ticket numbers in use.
Minnesota’s notification center was also very helpful in all our damage prevention efforts.
Other states were not as willing to provide contact phone numbers. We were told that phone numbers were proprietary and could not be given out. Not even emergency numbers. Some expressed concern that we would sue them if the number was wrong, or that if we had direct numbers, we would try to bypass the One-Call Center and contact the utilities locators directly. We talked with call center executive directors, board members and board chairs. We stressed that wanted to use the call center, not bypass it. We pointed out that their state laws required us to contact the facility operator if we hit a line, and we needed a phone number to contact them. The Excavator’s Manuals in three states said not to call the Center for damage, one did not address it, and one state had no manual. Illinois agreed to get signed releases from facility operators allowing call center staff to give out phone numbers; Michigan typed up phone lists for each ticket; Indiana would not give out any numbers.
“…they sometimes clear the ticket, meaning they don’t
send out a locator even if they have facilities that need marking.”
On the positive side, Indiana was able to give us computer files of the maps they used so we had accurate ticket boundaries.
Working on a railroad right of way is very different from working in town where there are addresses. Call centers work best with addresses or at least intersections. Only a small percentage of our tickets had an intersection at the point the railroad crossed a town line. None had an address. After discussions with the call centers, we found it best to pick the nearest street and cross street in the town or township and give drive instructions to the railroad and then give marking instructions up and down the railroad from one town line to the next.
But, there was still a problem related to working on a railroad right of way.
Screening systems, both human and computerized, look mainly at the town, the street, and the cross street. All too often they don’t read all the locate instructions, so if they don’t see a conflict at the starting point for the drive instructions, they sometimes “clear” the ticket, meaning they don’t send out a locator even if they have facilities that need marking.
After calling in eight tickets for two miles in Indiana that went to the same 23 facility operators, the screams of confusion were enough to get an exemption.
This problem came to light after I received a call from the potholing crew. They were near a small town with hydrants on both sides of the track with no paint on the ground. They told me to get someone out to locate the water and sewer lines. The contact number turned out to be a ticket screening service. The attendant looked up the ticket and said the city had no lines at the intersection listed. I asked if she had read the locate instructions, especially about going from that intersection to the railroad. She said no, they never read the locate instructions, only the address or intersection. After a discussion with the screening service management, I understand attendants now read the locate instructions. They also notified the town locator and did go back over all of the tickets we had called in to be sure everything had been properly marked.
As we went into other states we realized that most Notification Center databases were organized by town and township. That meant that a ticket length of one town or township was the best way to minimize confusion for locators and to avoid having our ticket cleared instead of marked. It also fit the “system” well. The downside was that when the railroad crossed the corner of a section, we had some tickets less than a quarter mile long. This seemed to usually happen in the “boonies” where it was a challenge to find a nearby road or intersection to use as a reference. We tried county-long tickets in some rural areas, but stopped that due to concerns about screening. For example, on a county 30 miles long, we would go through 5 townships. The ticket had to have the name of the starting township. If a screener who had facilities at the other end of the county looked only at the name of the starting township without reading the description, the ticket would be cleared when it should be marked. The savings in tickets were not worth the risk.
Township-length tickets were frowned on in Indiana and Michigan. These states wanted tickets from one-quarter to one mile long. They had instituted this policy after too many excavators called in far more distance than they could complete in a few days work. Our locate and plow crews covered an average of four to six miles per day. After calling in eight tickets for two miles in Indiana that went to the same 23 facility operators, the screams of confusion were enough to get an exemption. Michigan also granted an exemption after the first batches of tickets went through and they saw that township length tickets fit the situation better. Another procedure to get paint on the ground started after one city missed marking a number of facilities on the first ticket and then kept finding and marking more every day for another week. Exasperation finally led to asking them to sign a statement that all facilities were marked. That letter worked so well we started doing it routinely. Before the plow came through, we sent a letter to every facility operator asking for a signature attesting they had marked 100 percent of their facilities for the tickets listed.
We would also call in a new ticket for the plow crew about the same time. A few days later a truck would “high-rail” the route checking that every painted facility had been exposed and databased. They would often find a half dozen new paint marks each 30 or so miles. The locate crew would backtrack to expose and document those lines. We prevented a lot of damage with that procedure!
In cases where the signature was not received and we suspected that not all lines had been located, we gave facility owners a courtesy call. If we still had concerns, we sent another letter to the effect that “If you are not willing to sign that 100 percent of your facilities are marked, we must assume that you either know or suspect that there are unmarked facilities. We request that you assign a person to accompany the plow.”
There were a lot of reasons that locators did not put paint on the -round in response to the tickets. Municipalities usually asked how deep we were plowing. We told them “four to six feet.” They usually said, “we are deeper than that so we are clear.” Then we would tell them we don’t plow through paved intersections, we have to bore them. Gas, electric and phone are usually in the 3 to 5-foot range and we need a 2 to 3-foot clearance. “But that could put you right where our sewer and water are!” they say. Then we say, “Maybe you should mark your water and sewer.” It is a ritual we go through repeatedly.
“…they have never marked out their sewers, wouldn’t mark them for us, and didn’t care what the state law said.”
Depending how seriously you take safety, you decide how hard you are willing to push. There are the hard-noses like the major city who told us they have never marked out their sewers, wouldn’t mark them for us, and didn’t care what the state law said. After the city engineer confirmed that policy, we called the city attorney who said she would check into the law and talk to the engineers. She told them to follow the law, but we still didn’t see any paint. Calling back we were told the sewers were permanently marked – by manhole covers! If we would come down to city hall, they would for a price make copies of the sewer maps.
The contractor’s legal department said it was unacceptable for the contractor to assume the liability of locating and marking the city’s facilities. So we sent a letter to the commissioner of public works asking him to advise his staff to follow the directive of his city attorney and state law. When we called to see if they were going to put the paint down, we were told, “We have decided to acquiesce to your request.”
In general, markouts were done very professionally, but there were pockets where it was bad. Crews would sometimes find four or more unmarked facilities a day, day after day. When local management could not or would not solve this problem, we moved higher. With contract locators we called the president of the company. With in-house locators, we had to find the right manager. In several cases we had to contact the Public Service Commission to get action. But, we always made verbal contact with the facility owner or contract locator first. We did not want them surprised, because we still needed their cooperation. I stress that this kind of action did not have to occur often; that most people were very cooperative.
Several times we encountered highway departments that did not want us to expose facilities under their pavement. They said that no one else ever exposed anything and we should blindbore past the gas and electric just like the others did. Again we had to make phone calls and send letters to policy makers outlining the law and their liability. They would respond that their concern was the proper restoration of pavement after we potholed. After assuring them of our agreement to do it right, we received the permits.
Indiana was the only state we went through in 1998 that did not have mandatory One-Call membership for facility operators. Indiana law requires all facility operators to register with the County Recorder. I called the Recorders of the four counties we went through to get the list of operators and the contact numbers. Not one Recorder had a list. Three had never heard of such a list. So, the locate crews had to check every phone book along the route for more operators than those covered by One-Call.
Later, I learned that although the county recorders might not have lists of under ground facility owners, that didn’t mean names hadn’t been provided for the lists. At one point, a crew spotted evidence of an unmarked electric line. After some searching, we tracked down the operator of the line. The power company was not a member of the call center and was adamant that they would not join. They sent us copies of the forms they had filed with the recorders and basically told us that it was not their problem if the recorder couldn’t find them.
This year, we will be installing more fiber. I will be working with crews going across nine states. Only two of the states have mandatory membership. Only one of the seven non- mandatory states has provided a listing of non-members. The rest have told me they do not even have a list of prospective members they will share. That means that we will have to track down as many non-member operators as we can by contacting county recorders, searching by Standard Industry Code listings and other sources. We will merge these lists with the call center member lists, purging the duplicates, and finally checking phone books as the crews get into an area.
In 1999, I will be buying more hardware and software to make this underground line avoidance project more effective and efficient. With another seven thousand dollar investment, the entire ticket calling, map generating, and letter writing system will be integrated.
We will always begin by making notifications to the call centers, but we will also be sending out the cover letters and maps, and we will make follow-up phone calls to each and every facility owner, One-Call members, and non-members.
Note: The cable placement contractor told Underground Focus that making single call and hoping everything gets marked is not wise. When he hit seven unmarked facilities in a 100-mile stretch of cable placement he hired Mr. Kelly as a subcontractor to make sure lines got marked. He credits Kelly’s system with reducing hits by over 90 percent. The contractor says that One- Call is a fantastic concept and nothing could replace it. However, there is room for improvement in the overall damage prevention process.