Traceable, Verifiable and Complete – the Locator’s Perspective



First, a confession:  I have never been employed as a locator by a company whose primary business is locating underground utilities.  I have, however, looked for lots of different things underground and, until fairly recently – say the last 15 years – I never thought much about finding things underground.  These days I can’t dig nearly as long or as deep as I used to so I am probably a little safer now than I used to be.  More importantly, today I worry  a lot more about what is underground BEFORE I stick a shovel in the ground.  That is where the locator comes in.  If you are reading this, you know about “call before you dig.”  Every state requires now some form of notification before digging – commonly known as a one-call ticket.  Each state is a little different but the idea is to make sure that nobody gets hurt because they hit something potentially dangerous underground or damage some critical underground utility.

Underground utility damage prevention can be looked at as a game – a deadly serious game.  Properly played, nothing bad will happen.  If the rules aren’t followed, bad things are far more likely to happen.  Bad things can happen even if the rules are followed. Remember, Murphy was an optimist!!

The five main players in the game are property owners, contractors/excavators, one call centers, underground utility owners, and locators.  The game starts with the owners of underground utilities (some are exempt) providing the location of their assets to the local one-call center.  Then anyone that wants to move dirt (could be a property owner or a contractor/excavator) must dial 811 and get a one-call ticket at least two days before sticking a shovel in the ground.  The one-call ticket should provide the location of the excavation, describe the extent of the excavation, include a contact number for the excavator and will usually contain other relevant information.  The one-call center then compares the location of the excavation to the information provided by the member utilities and notifies each potentially affected utility.  This is where the locators come in.  Each utility has a state-mandated deadline to get its utilities accurately marked on the ground and is responsible for having locators to make that happen.  Some utilities have their own employees do the marking and some hire contract locators.  It doesn’t matter – it is the responsibility of the utility to get its utilities accurately marked in a timely fashion.  The contractor/excavator must wait the required time and/or gets confirmation from all the utilities or the one-call center that everything has been marked before digging.  It is important to realize that the rules vary from state to state.

In a perfect world, all the damage prevention players work as a team.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  If a one-call ticket is used, 99+ percent of the time everybody does their job, nobody gets hurt and no underground utilities are damaged.  The focus of this article is on the locator.

The life of a locator is not an easy one.  They may have as many as 20 or more locates per day depending on the distances between each locate.  A lot of driving is involved – and we all know how dangerous driving can be.  But that is only the beginning.  Street addresses and reasonable driving directions can go a long way in terms of reducing driving time.  Latitude and Longitude – particularly in rural areas – can be very useful.  The Customer Service Reps (CSRs) at the one-call center almost always do a fantastic job of “getting it right.”  Tickets may be obtained via fax or internet.  If fax or internet is used, it is extremely important to make sure all the information is accurate– especially the contact name and phone number.  Without a contact and phone number, the CSR has no way to correct any mistakes or secure additional information.  The ticket will be invalid and the likelihood of damage is increased significantly.  If the contractor/excavator does not have a valid ticket, they are usually considered to be at fault if damage occurs.

Once the locator is on site the real work begins.  The ticket should describe the area to be marked.  The area should be as specific as possible.  In an urban setting, marking the intersection of “XXX street and YYY avenue” can be much more challenging than marking the northeast corner of that same intersection.  If the digging is to be linear (horizontal directional drilling for example) let the locator know which side of the street the excavation will occur.  There is a technique called “white lining” where the area to be excavated is marked with white paint on the ground.  White lining may be required in some jurisdictions.  Even if it is not, it is almost always a good idea.  It is OK to white line an area somewhat larger than the actual excavation to allow field changes during the actual construction – just don’t get carried away.  Electronic white lining by using GPS has, in my opinion, a long way to go.  It can be useful in some situations but is simply not the same as paint on the ground.

Emergency tickets can be a problem.  An emergency to a property owner or an excavator may not qualify as an emergency in a particular one call jurisdiction.  Just because someone forgot to call in a ticket two days ahead of time does not qualify as an emergency.  A broken gas line or a damaged power line to a hospital or a nursing home probably would qualify.  Again, local rules may vary.

Other issues affecting locators include locked gates, aggressive pets, dangerous neighborhoods, poor site conditions, bad weather – the list goes on and on.

Speaking of poor site conditions, there may be multiple underground utilities present and each may have an independent locator.  It can be problematic to make sure the right utility has been located.  Different marks are used for different utilities.  Abandoned underground utilities and non-member underground utilities can be a big problem.  Plastic gas distribution or service lines can be very hard to locate.  Interference from adjacent utilities can make it difficult to mark lines accurately.

Finally, the ultimate goal of the locator is to accurately (i.e., within the tolerance set by the state – usually somewhere between 12” and 24”) mark the surface above the underlying utility.  Note that depth is not usually indicated.  It is up to the contractor/excavator to pothole or hand dig to expose the utility and establish the depth.

Above all – it is a team effort.  Everybody has to do their job.  The Locater is an important part of the team.  As always – IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING!!