Utility companies throughout the state of California are working to ensure that an 811 hotline is in the forefront of people’s minds as another well-known three-digit number, but with the goal of preventing emergencies before they occur. The 811 hotline was established in 2005, but its roots date back to May 1975 when its creator, USA North 811, began operation. It was later incorporated as a 501(c)(6) Non Profit Mutual Benefit Corporation in 1986. The Call 811 Before You Dig campaign message is being spread through television commercials, billboards, social media, and workshops intended to educate local residents, agencies, business owners and those they hire for construction projects.
By calling 811, locals can learn how to prevent damaging underground infrastructure by finding out where they are and how to avoid them. Van Jackson, a damage investigator with PG&E’s Dig-In Reduction Team says it’s pretty easy for someone to accidently hit one of the company’s plastic underground pipes while digging.
Anyone who is planting, digging, excavating, drilling, trenching, or grading is encouraged to call 811 before they start, whether it’s a big construction job done by contractors that requires excavators and backhoe type equipment, someone who is building a koi pond in their backyard with shovels and spades, or simply planting a tree or a flower bush.
The website, call811.com, uses the motto “Know What’s Below,” along with “Call Before You Dig,” and urges people to reach out each and every time they plan a new outdoor project that requires digging, even if the work area was previously marked. The site points out that erosion and root system growth can alter the depth or location of buried lines. The website also states that utility companies may have done work on their lines since the last time the area was marked.
“Every nine minutes in the United States an underground utility is damaged,” Jackson said. Typically, he adds, the spring and summer seasons see an increase in calls and incidents, referred to as “dig-ins,” because there are more people doing construction and starting home upgrade projects.
Each 811 call, or online message, must be made at least three days before an excavation project is set to begin. A USA (Underground Service Alert) ticket is generated and several agencies, members of USA North in Northern California or USA of Southern California, also known as DigAlert, are notified including local phone, water, sewer and cable providers. The caller will be contacted typically within two business days after the call, by each entity that has infrastructure that could be impacted. Callers are then asked to mark the perimeter of their work area with white chalk, stakes or flags, as white is the universal color for proposed excavation.
“A lot of folks have a misunderstanding that if they’re digging on their property, as a homeowner you’re not required to get a USA ticket,” Jackson said.
Not calling 811 can have costly consequences, including gas leaks, outages and personal injury. Worst case scenarios can see explosions and the loss of life and limb. Accidents that occur as a result of not calling 811 first, can garner steep fines. One incident Jackson was called to investigate ended in a $5,000 fine being levied against a homeowner. While he says that is on the high end of the monetary sanctions that people can be subjected to, it should serve as a warning that it is better to call.
“Taking advantage of the 811 hotline,” Jackson says, “takes any guesswork out of the process.”