DIRT Info Proves Invaluable

The collection and analyzing of data about accidents damaging the nation’s underground utilities is significantly helping efforts to develop and implement programs to protect underground facilities, Robert Kipp, president of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), said in a presentation at the 2013 UCT Show in Houston in late January.

CGA is a nonprofit, member-driven organization dedicated to establishing and promoting practices to prevent damage to the underground utility infrastructure. Kipp spoke at a session in the event’s Damage Prevention and Safety track.

CGA’s DIRT (Damage Information Reporting Tool) has collected information about 220,000 accidental utility strikes which help identify why these events occurred and actions the industry can take to prevent them in the future. Kipp said DIRT data is a statistically-valid national sample encompassing information from basic utility providers.

“The key finding,” Kipp said, “is that less than one percent of excavations [trenching, excavating, boring or actions disturbing the soil] preceded by a one-call notification experience damages.”

Further analysis of the 2011 DIRT report, Kipp said, showed 26 percent of damages were a direct result of failure to make a one-call notification prior to excavation.

“A call to 811, the national one-call center number, therefore is clearly the simplest and most effective means to reduce or eliminate excavation-related underground utility damages,” said Kipp.

Multiple causes
Failing to locate and mark utilities prior to construction activities is not the sole cause of damage to buried facilities, and the DIRT program seeks to identify all root causes of accidents to assist in educating stakeholders and developing effective damage-prevention programs.

Key questions DIRT seeks to answer regarding each incident are:
• Was a locate request made prior to excavation?
• Was the site properly marked?
• Was the site properly excavated?

Obviously, there can be numerous issues during excavation that can result in an accident and, Kipp said, DIRT data identifies many of those causes.

For example, the 2011 report found that small fencing, irrigation and landscaping contractors were categories most often involved in accidents where no request for locates were made.

“These contractors typically work in areas where underground facilities are found, so we know these markets need to be targeted by awareness efforts,” said Kipp.

The DIRT program isn’t the only ongoing research; a research firm is conducting a public awareness study to measure the level of importance of notifying one-call before allowing excavation, Kipp said.

Clearly those markets can be targeted by awareness efforts. An effective public awareness program already in place, focuses on the importance of the “Call Before You Dig” campaign. Materials are available (www,call811.com) and have been widely used enabling local one-call agencies to prepare ads and distribute information about 811 and the importance of locating facilities before excavation.

Tracking perception
Kipp said CGA uses an independent research firm to track public perception of the importance of calling before digging, and results of ongoing studies document educational efforts working.

“In 2008, 50 percent of the homeowners surveyed in the study said before excavating was done on their property, they would notify one-call,” Kipp said. “In 2012, 82 percent said they would contact one-call.”

Protecting underground facilities from damage is an ongoing task that never will be finished. However, the CGA and other stakeholders are making significant progress.

“With the combined efforts of all concerned, it is working,” said Kipp. “We are making progress, and that is good news.”

A Short History of DIRT

It appears to make sense that if details relating to the causes of accidental utility strikes can be gathered in a database, that the information can be useful in developing programs that will reduce the number of such incidents.

However, utility owners and operators and the contractors who serve them are understandingly cautious about revealing these details which very likely are part of active or pending litigation.

It was clear to those planning the program that ultimately became the Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) that it was essential that sources providing information about underground utility damages would be confidential and could never be identified in subsequent reports.

DIRT was launched in 2003 via a secure web application that allows users to submit damage and near miss reports; browse files submitted by the user’s organization; administer role-based company and user information; edit personal profiles; change/retrieve password; and submit feedback and questions.

“In the beginning,” said Kipp, “many organizations were reluctant to share information.”

Prospective participants were assured the information would be secure and confidential and could never be used for enforcement purposes or to attempt to determine damage liability and that the data will be analyzed and the findings issued via comprehensive reports.

“Participation has increased every year,” Kipp said. “The database now contains more than 220,000 incidents from 2011 alone and is increasing every day. DIRT has become a comprehensive source of information about the root causes of facility strikes.
The 2011 report (the most recent) identified these root causes:
• Notification not made — 26 percent;
• Locating practices insufficient — 22 percent; and
• Excavation practices not sufficient — 41 percent.

Details in each category help identify steps that can be taken to reduce the number of such hits in the future.

Common Ground Alliance, (703) 836 1709, www.commongroundalliance.com

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