Did you know there are more than 20 million miles of underground utilities in the United States? Did you also know that every six minutes an underground utility line is damaged because someone decided to dig without taking proper precautions and know what’s under their feet?
Who is in charge of protecting these lines?
Whether you call it Blue Stakes in Utah, MISS DIG in Michigan, Dig Safe in New England, JULIE in Illinois, Sunshine 811 in Florida, or Iowa One Call, utility companies, contractors and citizens should all know what 811 is. Keep reading to learn about the laws, facts, and stories that go along with 811 in your area.
What is 811?
In March 2005, the United States Federal Communications Commission made 811 the universal number for the 71 regional services that coordinate location services for underground public utilities. Before that time, each of these “call before you dig” services had their own 800 number, which led to confusion and delay when calling for needed services.
When someone contacts 811, they are able to give the operator their contact information, where they are planning to dig, as well as the type of work they will be doing. Utility companies are then notified about the intent to dig by either email or fax. Each utility company will then send someone to mark their affected lines within 2-3 days.
Why should Utility Owners care about 811?
First of all, it’s the law. Second of all, none of the utility owners want their utilities damaged. In Utah alone there are over 600 members of Blue Stakes of Utah 811. They consist of entities (or utilities) associated with power, gas/oil, sewer, cable, storm drains, cities, phone service, traffic signals, water, etc. Having a line damaged is expensive and can create headaches from downed service time to injury of the excavator.
Once 811 has been notified by the excavator or citizen, the utility has 48 hours to mark their lines with the correct color, before the excavator can begin digging. According to Utah law if no lines are in the area, the excavator must also be contacted and informed. If 48 hours have elapsed from the time of the initial notice, and no lines have been marked and no contact has been made, the excavator can start digging.
What happens, you may ask, if a utility company improperly marks a line or fails to mark one all together? Spanish Fork City maintenance crews damaged a communication cable when they were augering to install a drinking fountain. They contacted the utility company and understood that no damages would be assessed to the City. Nine months later, a bill for $10,000 was sent to the City for repair costs. The City showed photo evidence that the shredded cable line was 7 to 8 feet away from the utility marking. The bill was dismissed and the utility company had to eat the cost of repairing the line.
Some cities/utility companies only get a few calls/tickets per week. Some medium sized cities get roughly 30 to 50 per day. And larger cities/companies receive 100’s of calls per day for utility marking. One lost ticket, one lost call, one failed marking can end up costing thousands of dollars and cause unforeseen project delays! Tracking these calls/tickets is incredibly important for safety and profit margins.
Why call 811?
More than 30.4 million calls are made across the United States each year to 811. Consider this, 15 percent of utility damages are caused by those engaged in small jobs such as landscaping and fencing. Whether you are installing a mailbox and only need to dig down 8 inches or you are drilling down 80 feet for a foundation, hitting a utility line could be dangerous. Even if no harm or injury is caused, you could take a big hit to the wallet.
Although 811 is a national number now, states still have different requirements when it comes to timelines and calling 811. The Common Ground Alliance has compiled information about utility locating services from every state. Click here to check how many days in advance a utility locate request must be placed, how long the markings are good for once marked, as well as the laws that pertain to utility lines in each state.
In Utah, 48 hours of advance notice must be given and the marks are then good for 14 days. Maine requires 72 hours notice and the marks are good for a whopping 60 days. Lastly, Hawaii needs five working days and marks are good for 28 days.
As you can see, the laws and requirements vary from state to state and it’s important to be familiar with the rules and laws of where you work and or live.
Why should citizens, cities, or excavators care about 811?
First of all, it’s the law. Second of all, it is dangerous to dig without knowing what is below you. If you do a Google or YouTube search of digging accidents, you will see many shocking and gruesome incidents caught on film. Story after story will pop up detailing how someone was killed or maimed by hitting a line. Now, while such disasters are extremely rare and generally do not happen when landscaping, injuries are possible.
If the fear of injury does not deter you, possibly a hit to the pocket book would encourage you to call 811 before you dig. In Utah, an excavator can be fined $500 for not calling even if no line is hit. If a line is hit, fines can reach $5000 for each violation with a maximum penalty of $100,000. In Washington, it is $1000 for the first violation and $5000 for subsequent violations. Damage to a gas line can result in a $10,000 fine, or even a gross misdemeanor charge which can land you in jail for 30 days. The state can also recover three times the cost of repair.
So whether you work for a utility company, help manage tickets for a municipality, own a general contracting business, or are just installing a new mailbox, the 811 system from start to finish helps to protect everyone!