Sunshine State One Call of Florida (SSOCOF) recently expanded its enforcement program to cover 20 counties throughout Florida in an effort to curb utility outages due to underground facility damages, prevent injuries as a result of these damages and ensure compliance with Chapter 556, the Underground Facility Damage Prevention and Safety Act.
“SSOCOF’s damage prevention efforts are all about decreasing damages and protecting underground facilities that deliver vital services such as electric and telephone to Florida’s residents on a daily basis,” said Cheryl Ritter, SSOCOF damage prevention manager. “Just think what could happen if an excavator hit an underground high-pressure gas line, high-voltage electric line or a line carrying 911 calls. And what about fiber optic cables carrying information that could cost businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars per second when outages occur as a result of accidental damage?”
This is not just a local problem. Nationwide, businesses and residents experience these types of service outages; and this has Florida and many other states being challenged to develop an effective enforcement program or run the risk of facing federal mandates that would increase fines and penalties issued to excavators.
Currently, a Florida excavator without a valid locate ticket for projects involving digging typically pays $250; however, fines can be as much as $5,000 plus lost revenues from job-site shut downs. Shut downs can remain in effect until the excavator has called for a valid locate ticket and waited two full business days.
“Having a valid locate ticket involves a four-step process,” Ritter said. “First you call 800/432-4770 before digging. Then you wait two full business days for the owners of buried facilities to locate and mark their lines. When the owners have either cleared the area or marked the site, digging can begin, but those marks need to stay in place during the project and that’s the third step. The last thing excavators need to do is dig safely, especially if they are digging within 24 inches of the locate marks.”
Ritter said that when the four steps are followed, accidental damages to buried facilities can be prevented.
Established in 2005, SSOCOF’s enforcement program uses off-duty Florida Fish and Wildlife Officers, because they have full authority to enforce all Florida state laws. However, any law enforcement officer can enforce Chapter 556.
SSOCOF’s officers patrol 20 counties including: Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Franklin, Gulf, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Leon, Martin, Okaloosa, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Seminole, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla.
While patrolling, officers conduct courtesy stops to see if excavators have valid locate tickets. During these stops, SSOCOF has an excavator’s undivided attention for education. Officers have been trained to provide basic safety education on Chapter 556. Excavators who consistently violate Chapter 556 are issued citations.
So far, more than 600 courtesy stops have been completed. But this increased enforcement has some excavators crying foul.
“It’s unfortunate that our efforts to enforce this safety law are being viewed as unfair or a form of harassment,” Ritter said. “Our main concern is compliance with the existing law to protect excavators and residents. Most complaints are coming from excavators who were unaware of the law and are now being asked to stop work, obtain a locate ticket and wait two full business days for utilities to locate and mark their underground facilities or notify the excavator of an all clear before beginning excavation.”
With education as the primary focus, word about SSOCOF’s enforcement efforts is spreading across the state and requests for safety education classes have increased. From The Villages alone, more than 300 construction companies employing 3,000 workers are chomping at the bit to learn more about complying with Chapter 556.
Ritter said many Florida excavators are calling and digging safely. Last year, SSOCOF grew to become the largest one-call center in the United States. receiving more than 1.8 million requests from excavators in Florida.
SSOCOF is a one-call notification center mandated by Chapter 556 to receive calls from excavators and homeowners two full business days before digging. Based on that call, SSOCOF produces a locate ticket which is sent to facility owners with buried facilities close to the excavation site.
SSOCOF offers free educational sessions to professional excavators and homeowners.
For more information, visit www.callsunshine.com.