Positive Response

This blog series Technology Highlight explores some of the ways that investments in innovation lead to better outcomes for infrastructure and public safety. When technology advances, it often becomes cheaper, more widely available and accessible, and helps facilitate faster, safer, and greener projects.

This series launched by highlighting the way that innovation leads to greater access to technology. Using mobile devices as an example, we saw the way that innovation drove prices down and quality up all while making a once exclusive technology virtually ubiquitous. From there, we dove into the damage prevention process to explore the way technology at the One-Call centers and locator equipment on site improve efficiency and safety.

Up to this point, our technology highlight series has presented the order of operations and general overview of the damage prevention process. From a proposed dig to notifying the One-Call center (through 811 or online) to locators arriving on site, finding, and marking the ground above the underground utility, the process is virtually complete. But spray paint does not provide a lot of information and can sometimes lead to miscommunications. That is why closing the communication loop is important – giving an affirmative communication to the excavator that the locator’s job is complete and accurate.

Positive response is the practice of closing this communication loop. At its most basic level, positive response is anything that gives the excavator notice that the site has been located and marked. That means the bare minimum could actually be the spray paint itself. The problem is that if five utilities are present underground, and an excavator sees four spray paint colors and markings, they may conclude that the site has been fully located and marked. Similarly, they may see old and outdated marks or no marks at all, which may further obfuscate clarity about the presence and location of underground utilities.

A more robust form of positive response is to place a phone call or send an email stating that the job is complete, or if incomplete, provide an explanation. This ensures that if a locator is in error, fails to visit a site, visits the wrong site, was unable to locate the facility, or was unable to gain access to the site itself, the excavator knows and can act accordingly.

The level of technology needed for this basic form of positive response is low – cell phones and tablets are not even needed, as landlines and desktop computers can be used to pass along the information. As our kick-off blog highlighted, however, access to mobile devices has made this basic positive response an unburdensome and simple task.

Providing a call or email closes the communication loop and at least makes the excavator aware of the completeness of the locate job. Yet technology exists to drastically improve upon this communication and collaboration. The next level of communication is electronic positive response. This takes the whole communication loop and places it on the Internet. Through the online platform of the One-Call center, excavators can check the status of their ticket to see how many utilities were notified, whether they have responded, and what short-hand code they provided to complete the ticket.

The excavator may log in and see that all five utilities present near the dig site did visit the site and provided an all-clear code, meaning that the entire proposed dig site is free of underground infrastructure. They may see that one of the utilities left a code that they were unable to gain access to the site due to weather, locked gates, or other barrier. This would tell the excavator that they need to reschedule a locate or seek further clarity. Electronic positive responses can also be forwarded to the excavator’s email to see responses in real time. This provides access to updates on the site with clarity and efficiency as well as preserves a record, whereas spray paint alone is limited and a phone call is not preserved in writing.

Still, electronic positive response brings the damage prevention process virtual and elevates the standards of communication and collaboration. Today, 45 states have access to a system like this, helping close the communication loop digitally and share information.

An even higher level of technology exists to facilitate far clearer and more robust site information. This is known as enhanced positive response, and it once again builds on the previous concept by closing the communications loop but allowing enhanced information to be attached. While spray paint is helpful, it can be incomplete or disrupted before an excavator comes onsite. While short codes communicating routine situations help pass quick information to the excavator, they do not always contain complete descriptions. Finally, excavators may work in teams or crews, and the exact ticket scope may not be known to them, so providing enhanced ticket information can be very helpful to the individuals actually breaking ground.

Enhanced Positive Response tackles each of these and more by allowing attachments of digital photographs, locate technician sketches and descriptions, virtual manifests, enhanced ticket information, and in some cases, even virtual maps of the utilities. These can be packaged into an email to the excavator or integrated as hyperlinks or attachments in a platform like electronic positive response. Studies have found enhanced positive response capable of reducing damage by as much as 67 percent due to the high level of technology-facilitated communication and collaboration.

When the risk of uncertainty or miscommunication can be as high as fatal accidents, the highest level of technology and clarity is essential. Fortunately, the damage prevention process is along the cutting edge of communication technology and improving every day. Industry groups expect to see enhanced positive response as the gold standard for every excavation by 2030. Certainly greater adoption of technology before then will help preserve lives, lower costs, improve safety, and promote efficiency.

In the next blog, we will explore some of the latest technologies spread across the damage prevention process, including those that help alert operators to prior or real-time incidents.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


Interested in other technology highlights? Stay tuned for more ways technology is making damage prevention safer.


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.