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Phone to Internet: A sign of things to come in excavation safety?

09 Nov 2015, Posted in Blog Posts

As technology continues to improve, the manner in which we use the Internet, TV, water, electricity, and other utilities has changed dramatically. The Internet allows us to watch movies or find answers to any question online in a moment. High definition TV make it possible to track a puck with precisions as it moves down the ice. Energy efficient appliances and smart systems reduce our use of energy and water without any inconvenience to the user.

Providing all of these services requires millions of miles of underground pipelines, cables, wires and other facilities, which run throughout the country and into our homes and businesses. Due to these developments, underground utilities have become more crucial than ever, providing an invisible foundation to everyday life. One thing that has not changed with technology is how we protect these underground facilities from construction and other excavation activities.

For example, despite significant improvements in GPS mapping technologies in recent years, excavation damage incident rates have not improved. Increased use of the best available digital mapping technologies, improved communication between all parties (including utilities, excavators, locators), and stronger regulatory enforcement could go a long way in reducing the frequency and severity of incidents.

Under the current system, excavators call or submit online a ticket to a state-specific call center to notify all utilities operating in the area when and where they plan to excavate. These utilities then mark the surface with spray paint, stakes, or flags to denote where the underground utility lines are buried. This method is outdated and leaves the markings subject to problems caused by inclement weather, human error, or other disturbances.

There are a number of off-the-shelf technologies that could vastly improve this process, but states, industry, and the nonprofit One-Call centers that coordinate these projects have been slow to adopt them. However, there is room for optimism. One important breakthrough has begun to occur in recent years – the use of online systems to improve information sharing in the excavation industry.

For example, states like Maine, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia now allow excavators to submit tickets to the One-Call center online in the place of a phone call. This is a small improvement, but could mark an important shift in how excavators, locators, facility operators, and One-Call centers choose to share information moving forward.

Further ahead of the trend, Minnesota developed a One-Call application for mobile devices, which allows users to submit an excavation ticket, make a positive response notification and search for active tickets. It even provides a handy color coded guide.

While current excavation damage practices are not nearly as far along as they should be in implementing technological improvements, any move toward innovation and increased use of technology to improve safety and information sharing is a positive one.

Online ticket submissions in some states, and a great mobile application in another isn’t enough to revolutionize the industry. Perhaps the trend of adopting new technologies and using them to better share information among stakeholders could be the first step in breaking down the barriers that have been resisting change for decades.