Excavation damages to underground infrastructure – or more simply, digging projects that hit things like pipelines and internet cables – are on a five year upswing. Every year, more sensitive and critical infrastructure is being struck, damaged, and shuttered. Shovels and power tools breaking ground and hitting these unseen service lines cost the U.S. over $30 billion each year. So how can this be avoided?
The solution is the damage prevention process. It starts with calling 811 or logging into the state One-Call center website to inform utilities of an upcoming digging project. Notices to local utility operators are sent so that the ground above any pipe, cables, and wires can be marked with spray paint.
This process – which is much more robust and extensive in practice – is already in place. So why have damages been rising for five years?
The answer involves technology.
Effective communication often requires technology. Speaking person to person requires no hardware, but is slow and expensive. Because utility operators cannot be everywhere at once, they have to rely on innovative technology to facilitate mapping, locating, and communicating.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) designated the number one recommendation to improve the damage prevention process as incorporating collaboration and communication tools. In order for excavators to know what is below the ground before breaking through with excavators or power tools, they need a clear and comprehensive communication from utility operators about the presence and location of underground utilities.
It turns out that the technology needed to communicate this already exists. In fact, it existed when PHMSA recommended this improvement. In a report to Congress, PHMSA highlighted Enhanced Positive Response nearly a dozen times, and emphasized a pilot program with proven results of decreasing damage by up to 67 percent. The dig of the future is already here today.
Enhanced Positive Response (EPR) has been designated a best practice by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) – the premier member organization dedicated to protecting underground infrastructure. In the last few years, as many as 20 national stakeholders, state and federal agencies, and media outlets have espoused EPR as an effective tool for facilitating effective communication at the dig site.
In the latest CGA Technology Report (Technology Advancements & Gaps in Underground Safety), CGA does more than reaffirm EPR as a best practice. It is listed as a critical step in the ideal dig of the future – the year 2030!
Aii has pointed to the power and ability of existing technology to solve problems in the damage prevention space for nearly a decade. The problem is that much of this technology is not being systemically implemented. Along with the Technology Report, CGA President and CEO Sarah Magruder Lyle wrote, “Perhaps the single most important takeaway from CGA’s 2021 Technology Report is the extent to which technological solutions for some of our most entrenched problems already exist.”
We could not agree more strongly. Much of the vital technology able to facilitate better communication and collaboration and provide clarity about the presence and location of underground utilities at the dig site already exist. In Enhanced Positive Response, it not only exists, but is proven to reduce damage by more than half. Yet only a handful of One-Call centers and stakeholders use it today.
At a time when damage trends have risen for five consecutive years, costs have soared, and more vulnerable communities have been impacted by excavation damage, adopting a known, proven technology like EPR is more important than ever. We should not wait until 2030 to see this fully implemented across every One-Call center in America. The dig of the future starts today.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
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. (Aii.org)