A pair of new reports show increasing frustration among contractors with the U.S. 811 system.

The Infrastructure Protection Coalition on Nov. 17 released a study titled “811 Emergency”, which claims to have identified $61 billion per year in waste and excess costs that the group says create safety hazards.

On the same day, the Associated General Contractors of America released results of a survey showing that the majority of the respondents reported problems in the 811 process, such as slow response times and a lack of accurate utility locating from utility owners and operators. 

“Construction firms are doing their part to avoid hitting utility lines, but the current 811 system appears to be badly flawed,” Stephen Sandherr, CEO of AGC, said in a statement. “Fixing the 811 system will go a long way in protecting the safety of construction crews and the communities near these utility lines.”

The coalition study didn’t involve AGC but did include the American Pipeline Contractors Association, Distribution Contractors Association, National Utility Contractors Association and Power & Communications Contractors Association.

It identified costs caused by poor instructions given to utility line locators, locator marks being destroyed by construction and requiring re-installation, contractor wait time when location efforts extend beyond the legal notice period and locators being sent out for construction projects that don’t end up taking place. 

The Federal Communications Commission in 2005 designated 811 as the national number for contractors to call before excavating, but each state has its own 811 regulations, governance and call centers.

Six states and Washington, D.C., were responsible for a combined $13 billion in waste because of 811 policies that “lack teeth,” the report contends. In some cases, it said, the policies don’t require mandatory reporting of damage to utility lines. 

Meanwhile, 73% of AGC’s 520 respondents say there are weaknesses in the 811 process. The most commonly identified shortcomings were accurate locating, utility owner or operator response time and the wait time for locate requests to clear.

More than half of the AGC survey respondents also said unmarked or mismarked utility lines after a "locate" request resulted in line strikes or near misses. About two-thirds said they had received a claim or invoice from a facility owner for damage they had not caused.

“Too few utility firms are being held accountable for doing their part when it comes to helping contractors avoid hitting underground lines,” Sandherr said. 

Ninety-eight percent of respondents to the AGC survey said that having more contractor representation on local 811 center boards of directors would help fix the system;  91% said all utility firms should be required to participate in the 811 process.

The Infrastructure Protection Coalition also recommends that all asset owners and operators be required to participate in the 811 system, including municipalities and departments of transportation.

The coalition’s report made 13 recommendations aimed at improving the 811 system. The report estimates that the recommendations would eliminate $40 billion in waste and damage over three to five years.

Those recommendations also include adding mandatory damage-reporting requirements in areas that lack them, using a third-party enforcement board for damage adjudication, identifying and tracking metrics to improve damage prevention, improving excavation site description accuracy by requiring pre-marking of any proposed excavation area with options like GPS coordinates and aerial images, and requiring GIS system adoption for all asset owners by 2030. 

Tim Wagner, president of the Power & Communication Contractors Association, said in a statement that the 811 system is “imminently fixable.” 

“We can dramatically improve the system to improve public safety and cut waste with a combination of law, regulation and process changes mirroring what the best-performing states are already doing,” Wagner added. 

The report also recommends requiring state entities responsible for 811 system oversight to submit data on damage to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), the group behind 811 education campaigns, for its annual Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) report.

CGA wasn't involved with either report.

The alliance's members do include AGC, but also such organizations as the American Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, major oil and gas companies, Verizon and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

At present, some states, but not all, submit information for the DIRT reports, says Sarah Magruder Lyle, CEO and president of CGA. More data will benefit the damage prevention process, she adds.

Magruder Lyle says the reports show there are systemic challenges affecting efficiency and effectiveness in utility-line damage prevention.

CGA regularly releases best-practices guides for different stakeholders involved with underground utility lines and excavation. Making wide-ranging changes will require going beyond the excavators and locators to also involve operators, call centers, regulators and legislators, she says. 

"We have to look at the system in total," she says. "We can't just look at one part of the process and expect to have a significant change, because they're all intertwined."