Building anything, from a suburban family home to a 50-story skyscraper in a downtown business district, requires preparing the building site. A crucial part of the preparation begins before any machinery makes contact with the Earth: locating underground utilities at the construction site.

Pipelines, cables, wires, and other utilities can be dangerous to workers, while also costing thousands to repair if severed. Fortunately, calling 811 a few business days before breaking ground for any excavation project can save money, time, and most importantly, lives.

811 is the toll-free, nationwide number designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure safe excavation projects nationwide. This critical element of damage prevention can reduce the chance of a damage evens by as much as 99 percent.

Calling 811 is the first and most important factor in preventing damage to existing infrastructure or underground utilities. There are 40 One-Call centers around the country that handle proposed excavation notification and locate requests. When an excavator dials 811, an operator records a site description, address, and any additional information about the proposed excavation.

The One-Call center then sends notifications to all utilities with underground infrastructure in the area of the dig. A single dig may lead to five or six utilities being notified – including water, electric, telecommunications, sewage, natural gas, and more. The utility owner then sends a field technician known as a locator to visit the site to identify and mark the surface for any utilities underground at the site. This multi-party collaborative process all kicks off with a simple free call to 811. Once locators have completed their work, they typically make a positive response to close the communication loop – marking the site and leaving a record of their activity, notifying the One-Call center of their work, or sending a communication directly to the excavator.

It is amazing how a simple call to a three-digit number can, in three days, turn into markings on-site that reveal the network of infrastructure below your feet. These roots to homes and businesses sprawling underground go from unseen to seen through this important damage prevention process.

Equipped with this information and a marked site, the excavator can then confidently begin his work, exercising caution around markings and completing his project without damage or delay. The more information shared between parties, the better, and One-Call centers (through 811) are the facilitator ensuring the whole system functions properly.

Not only are the benefits of calling 811 enormous, and the call is free to excavators, but it is the law. Every state requires a notice of proposed excavation – a call before you dig – to 811. This helps protect the critical infrastructure beneath our feet, safeguards property owned by utilities, and most importantly, it protects the safety of the excavator who may strike a dangerous natural gas pipeline or sever electrical lines.

To learn more about calling 811, One-Call centers, and the underground systems that support and sustain our buildings, infrastructure, and modern life, follow along with #ModernRootsMarch. We are educating on the importance of knowing what is below our feet, working to protect it, and promoting safety nationwide.


Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.