How do you ensure that damages to underground utilities decrease? For the state of Georgia, the answer is active enforcement with a dynamic public awareness and education program.
Since 1999 through the end of 2004, the number of damages to natural gas lines has decreased nearly 40 percent, according to Rick Lonn, board chairman of the Georgia Utilities Protection Center and director of regulatory compliance for Atlantic Gas Light.
Active enforcement is a key to success, Lonn said. The enforcement became effective in 2000.
“If there is no active enforcement then you are not playing with a full deck,” Lonn said. “You can educate people forever, but some will not do what they should unless they are forced.”
While the Georgia Public Service Commission acts as the enforcement agency, the goal is not to punish as much as it is to educate those who are in violation, Lonn said.
“The Georgia Public Service Commission is doing a wonderful job,” Lonn said. “The standard fine is $1,500 but they will mitigate if the person will attend training.”
At the same time that the enforcement aspect of the law was taking effect, Atlanta Gas Light was taking an even more aggressive approach toward damage prevention by adding damage prevention coordinators to its staff to support those out in the field and provide training. Georgia also has active utility coordinating councils for utility owners and excavators, which hold monthly meetings to discuss issues and find solutions to problems before they get out of hand, Lonn said.
Georgia Utility Protection Center has also been active in educating the entire community of excavators and utility owners.
“Public awareness and education are so much more than producing a few prices of collateral or buying a box of key fobs,” said Claudette Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Utility Protection Center. “I have six people in the field that work endlessly getting the word out through meetings, individual visits, training and problem solving, not to mention our elementary education program.”
Georgia One Call’s liaison staff focuses its training on all who have a stake in damage prevention, beginning with the member company and ending with the general public, Campbell said.
“My liaisons are managers who can make decisions and give advice. They are great mediators and look at problems with unbiased eyes,” Campbell said.
While damage has been reduced across the state of Georgia, it does not mean that spreading the message of damage prevention is of any less urgency.
“You have to deal with the problem of utility damage and prevention on a day-to-day basis,” Lonn said. “You can’t take your foot off the pedal. You must continue to stay on top of the issue and remind people of the dangers or there will be a regression and damage rates will rise.”
Spreading the message of safe digging has not only helped Georgia see a decrease in damaged utilities, but one call tickets have risen slightly at the same time by about 7 percent, which shows that people are responding to the message to call before digging, Lonn said.
While the reduction in damage is a great first step, Lonn said there is still a way to go to protect the underground infrastructure.
“Between 30 and 40 percent of the damages that occur are a result of failure to call prior to digging,” he said.
(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2005 edition of Underground Focus.)