It is expected that in 2008, there will have been approximately 680,000 incidents that damage underground utilities. That averages to more than one accidental utility hit every minute.

Fortunately, most of these incidents cause little damage or widespread interruption of services. However, others cause power and communication outages that can disrupt entire neighborhoods and sections of cities. Accidentally hitting a buried power line can cause serious injury or death, and rupturing a high-pressure natural gas pipe can result in an explosion that is a major disaster.

The hit-a-minute statistic comes from a recent study by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), the private, nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and implementing a comprehensive damage-prevention program to protect underground utilities in North America.

The first step in preventing damage to buried cable and pipe is to contact the one-call agency in which a project involving excavation is located. One-call then notifies member organizations with utilities in the area that are responsible for locating and marking their lines, either with their own personnel or contract locators.

Although this is a routine step for public and private providers of power and the contractors who serve them, a surprising number of incidents still occur because utility locations were not requested. In fact, CGA research has found that 40 percent of damages caused by utility strikes occur at sites where no request was made to locate and mark buried facilities.

National one-call number

Contacting one-call became much easier in 2007 when the national three-digit, one-call number—811—became operational. From anywhere in the country, dialing 811 connects the caller to the appropriate center.

“The response to 811, in general, has been good,” said Robert Kipp, CGA president. “Local one-call numbers are still active. The 811 system simply routes calls to the local numbers. Many stakeholders who have worked with one-call for many years still use the individual center telephone numbers.”

When 811 service was activated in May 2007, a public awareness campaign was launched, including educational materials that still are available from CGA.

Kipp said that not all states have actively promoted the availability and use of 811. However, while professional stakeholders—the term CGA uses to identify anyone with an interest in protecting buried utility infrastructure—understand and use the one-call system, the general public still needs to be educated about it.

“Unfortunately,” Kipp said, “current one-call center statistics show that the majority of Americans are not using this service. One recent CGA study found that, while 46 percent of Americans are active diggers who have done or plan to do a digging project at home, only 33 percent of do-it-yourselfers plan on calling before they dig, which means they are taking a huge risk each time their shovel disturbs the dirt.”

Efforts promoting 811 continue across the country by local one-call agencies, utility service providers and cooperative efforts that may include contractors and other stakeholders. Promotional efforts include placement of the 811 logo on advertising and statement stuffers, Web page banners, bumper stickers, signs on utility fleet vehicles, and paid newspaper and broadcast advertising.

Improving the nation’s call-before-you-dig programs was a key element in the original CGA Best Practices Study published in 1999 and recognized today as the best guide to reducing risks of damage to underground facilities. The latest edition—Best Practices Version 5.0—can be downloaded from the CGA Web site, www.commongroundalliance.com.

The CGA was established to put into effect provisions of the study through development and implementation programs to prevent damage to buried pipe and cable, educate the construction industry and the general public about the dangers of such accidents, and to foster the shared responsibility of all organizations with a mutual interest in protecting underground facilities.

Identifying the causes of damage

One of the most ambitious programs is beginning to produce significant benefits.

The Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) provides a method for collecting damage data on a national level. Collected information is used to analyze root causes of damages, conduct trend analysis and assess educational programs.

Lack of information about the causes of utility strikes hampers development of damage-prevention programs, Kipp said. Even though some states and individual one-call centers maintain records that include details about how strikes occurred, there has never been a national database of such information.

DIRT is changing that, and Kipp believes the program has the potential to become one of the most significant damage-prevention efforts ever developed.

“Obviously, if the causes of damage to underground utilities can be quantified, efforts to develop solutions to prevent them should be greatly improved,” Kipp said.

However, getting DIRT under way has been a challenge.Initially, utility providers were reluctant to share information because of concern over liability issues and potential litigation.

The CGA answer to those expressing that concern has been to assure confidentiality of information provided.

“Use of the DIRT tool is free, and we encourage all stakeholders to submit data,” Kipp said. “The database is not used by regulatory authorities to issue citations. The data is scrubbed; there’s no way to trace it back to the submitter. We only use it to identify problem areas and trends. For example, if fencing contractors report a disproportionately high number of damage incidents, CGA might work with that industry sector to increase awareness of the 811 program.”

The growing number of incidents being reported to the DIRT database indicates increasing credibility in the confidentiality of the program. The 2005 report was based on 51,600 incidents of hits and near-misses of buried utilities, more than double the number of incidents reported the previous year. The figure doubled again in 2006 with 104,000 incidents reported, and the 2007 report, now in the process of being finalized, will be based on more than 121,000 reports. That report is available on the CGA Web site.

Kipp emphasized while the number of incidents submitted to DIRT continues to increase annually, this should not be interpreted to mean that the number of incidents are increasing. It means that more organizations are reporting to DIRT.Neither do the incidents in the report reflect the categories of incidents actually occurring; they are limited by whom is contributing data.

For example, in the 2006 report, 91 percent of reported incidents were to natural gas and telecommunications facilities (49 and 42 percent respectively).

The two most common root causes of incidents were failure to request utility locations and insufficient excavation practices—both 38 percent. Seventy percent of the incidents were caused by equipment in the “digging” group: backhoes, trackhoes [excavators] and trenchers. The “drill” group (augers, boring machines, drills and horizontal directional drills) was involved in 8 percent of the incidents.

In 2006, 5 percent (4,036) of the incidents involved electrical facilities. Kipp said the number of electrical incidents in the 2007 report increased to 5,684, but dropped slightly as a percentage because of the greater number of incidents reported (121,373).

Again, the incidents involving electrical facilities in no way reflect the actual number of accidental hits of buried power cable and are a function of the relatively low number of incidents being submitted to the DIRT system.

No doubt, CGA and those managing the DIRT program welcome greater participation by power providers.

CGA board member Patti Lama, manager of contract construction and program management for Portland General Electric (PGE), is a strong proponent of the DIRT program.

“Portland General Electric (PGE) is always looking for ways to improve its damage prevention program,” Lama said.

“For the first time this year, PGE is submitting data to DIRT, which will be included in the 2008 report. While we monitor closely the causes of incidents, it is beneficial to be able to evaluate hard statistics. That helps us spend money on the prevention programs that will do the most good.”

Indeed, power companies and other stakeholders can benefit from information compiled by DIRT because root causes of incidents and the equipment involved in them apply to all types of facilities. A backhoe or excavator working in an area where buried utilities have not been located or marked poses of risk of hitting whatever is there—gas or water pipe, power or communications cable.

How is DIRT benefiting utility providers and the contractors who serve them?

“For me,” Kipp said, “the most significant fact is that 40 percent of our buried facility damages are occurring because no one made the call to have facilities located and marked. That tells me there’s still a lot to do to educate people, and especially the general public, to call before they dig.”

However, Kipp said other stakeholders may reach different conclusions.

“For example, looking at incidents that apply to his market, one stakeholder was surprised to see in the report the estimated cost of lost time resulting from incidents,” Kipp said. “And we want stakeholders to look at the reports and determine where they are in relation to data so they can take positive action to reduce incidents.”

Kipp said CGA encourages participation in the DIRT program in several ways.

“We continue to emphasize the confidentiality of information submitted, and I believe we have made it very easy and affordable to participate,” he said.

Complete details on submitting information are available on the DIRT Web site. New is the Virtual Private DIRT, a customized program for individual companies and organizations. Private, confidential information is stored on CGA-managed secure servers and accessed by standard Web browsers. Virtual Private DIRT uses standard data fields and allows creation of additional fields specific to the needs of each organization.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.