Thirty-five years ago this month, tragedy struck in the Twin Cities suburb of Mounds View, Minnesota. A leaking gas pipeline running a mile west of Interstate 35W, underneath Long Lake Road, exploded in the early morning hours of July 8, 1986. The fires from multiple blasts killed two people—a 6-year-old child and her mother—and severely injured another woman who had been out on her Tuesday morning newspaper delivery route while the neighborhood slept.
As the July 9, 1986 edition of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune described, “Manhole covers blew out of the ground, spewing sparks and fire like giant blowtorches. Walls of flame taller than utility poles flashed down the streets, melting power lines and mailboxes. Shrubs burst into flame and leaves wilted.”
The disaster didn’t only affect families and first responders, though—it forever changed how underground utility damage prevention works, and is perceived, in Minnesota. After the Mounds View incident, the state legislature conducted a pipeline safety study and mandated that comprehensive damage prevention legislation be passed. State Statute Chapter 216D, the state dig law that we all follow today, resulted in 1987. Later that year, Gopher State One Call was formally approved as the state’s damage prevention notification center. Its job? Receive notices of intent to excavate—and in turn, contact all facility operators in the area so that they could mark the lines before excavation.
GSOC accepted its first locate request on October 1, 1988. Since then, it has worked tirelessly to educate utility operators, locators, excavators and homeowners about damage prevention so that an incident like the one on July 8, 1986 doesn’t happen again. In 2020 alone, GSOC handled 941,358 notices to excavate, the highest number recorded in its history.
Fostering Shared Responsibility
Before Gopher State One Call existed, excavators bore the burden of directly notifying every operator with underground facilities in the excavation area (of which there could be dozens). Without a central facilitator, an excavator would have to keep track of each utility’s marking status, ensuring every company marked before digging began.
Keith Novy is a damage prevention manager for CenterPoint Energy who worked in the construction industry for many years. He has served on the GSOC board since 2015 and is currently vice chair.
“Prior to a call center, it was a matter of either digging and not knowing what’s below—or making individual phone calls to the different utilities,” Novy explains.
Individuals still certainly all have their own roles and responsibilities. But since the advent of GSOC, damage prevention is seen as a group effort that requires the buy-in of everyone, from big utility companies and GSOC’s board of directors to route locators and mom-and-pop excavator businesses. Safety depends on partnerships, versus simply hoping that each party does what it is supposed to.
GSOC “does a really good job of building that partnership and bringing the utility operator together with the excavator, and of getting them to work together to make sure that everybody goes home safe,” Novy adds.
Streamlining the Locate Request Process
Today, excavators have easy options for filing a ticket, such as calling 811 or submitting online through ITIC via desktop or mobile devices. Gopher State One Call provides a variety of cutting-edge tools for facility operators and locators to help them coordinate mapping, marking and positive response. But in the early days of Gopher State One Call, filing or responding to a ticket looked a lot different.
Kim Boyd has been in the damage prevention industry since 2000, recently serving as general manager of the GSOC notification center. When GSOC began operating in the 1980s and early ‘90s, “Everything would have been over the phone,” Boyd explains. “Online ticketing wasn’t introduced until the early 2000s in Minnesota.” Before that, if paperwork needed to be sent for confirmation or review, it was faxed between parties.
Current customer service representatives have access to sophisticated online mapping systems, but those working the GSOC phones even 25 years ago followed a cumbersome process each time a call came in. First, they would search for the large paper map they needed in the center’s extensive map library, then would bring it to a dedicated mapping station. There, they could pinpoint the excavation area on the map using a street index and complex grid system (envision an intricate, next-level version of the game Battleship with much higher stakes) and mark it.
By the late ‘90s as the internet became more ubiquitous, e-tickets were introduced. A proprietary PC program allowed excavators to fill out a form and email it directly to GSOC. Phone systems also became more sophisticated and offered more bandwidth as Y2K approached, allowing the center more versatility and the ability to handle increasing call volumes. But it was the introduction of the online ticketing software ITIC in the mid-2000s that really changed the game.
As we enter the 2020s, it’s hard to imagine the locate request process in Minnesota without ITIC’s functionality. Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic forced GSOC staff to work remotely, online ticketing has helped keep the state’s excavations on time—and helped homeowners safely tackle their own pandemic projects. “We did more than 84 percent of locate requests online in 2020,” says Barb Cederberg, GSOC’s chief operations officer, who has been with the center since 2015. “It was a very high percentage—one of the highest in the nation—of online tickets.”
“Minnesota is a pretty progressive state when it comes to technology, and wanting to advance and strive for new projects in mapping,” Boyd says. “[GSOC] really tries to tackle industry issues.”
Adapting to Homeowners’ Needs
Minnesota homeowner excavators were busy in 2020, with 110,239 submitted homeowner tickets received by Gopher State One Call. That’s 11.7 percent of total volume and 26,682 more homeowner tickets than in 2019.
According to Jim Holzer, director of marketing at One Call Concepts (the company that has operated GSOC ticketing systems since 2016), those impressive numbers are no accident. A big part of what sets the center apart is its longtime commitment to including homeowners in—and educating them about—safe digging.
Holzer notes that this prioritization started with some of GSOC’s early board members who wanted to ensure ticketing was accessible to everyone in the state, including homeowner excavators. “GSOC focuses on all the stakeholders to reduce damage,” Holzer says. “Minnesota excels at this.”
One way it has done so is by making ticketing easier for “casual” excavators. Whereas ITIC is designed for professional excavators who submit on a regular basis, the ITIC Lite ticketing systemis geared toward “someone who doesn’t know anything about the one call process,” Holzer explains. Some of the changes made over the years: more naturally worded questions, more direction provided during the mapping process and the option to have GSOC map the excavation area if the user requires assistance.
GSOC’s public outreach has also made it more approachable to amateurs. Cederberg notes that approximately 10,000 people annually come to GSOC’s Minnesota State Fair booth each August, many of them seeking the ever-popular Gopher State One Call yardstick (and safe digging information, of course).
“In addition to being progressive with technology, so are the ideas for public outreach,” Boyd notes. “Even just over the last five years, we have been putting billboards on the side of box trucks that go through rural areas and forged a partnership with the Star Tribune, in addition to the State Fair yardsticks, radio campaigns and sports team sponsorships. The outreach has really advanced over the last five years.”
Cederberg adds that an October 2018 public awareness survey showed that of those planning to excavate, there was 97 percent awareness and intention to contact GSOC. “It was a very high public awareness for those who are intending to dig.”
“Not to pat ourselves on the back, but I think we have a pretty comprehensive program,” she says. “We try new things. They don’t always work, but we try new things.”
More than a Clearinghouse
The efforts and experimentation have paid off. Minnesota boasts a highly engaged and invested damage prevention community that includes board members and stakeholders from all parts of the excavation process. It also boasts a low number of damages compared with other states. Of course there’s no guarantee that damages and disasters like the one in Mounds View won’t ever happen again. However, with Gopher State One Call’s “shared responsibility” approach—and its presence as a hub and active leader for the community—the chances are greatly reduced.
“We have very good use of the call center,” Novy says. “Minnesota tends to rank very low among the amounts of no-ticket damages. We’ve got good accessibility to the call center and putting in locate requests. Both from excavator and locator groups, there’s good communication and good use of [GSOC].” GSOC streamlines processes and makes ticketing convenient, but Boyd points out that the center also offers “educational information, information about safe digging and private utilities and answers to any of questions related to the one call process.”
In the 33 years since its official formation, the center has transcended its original purpose and, as Holzer puts it, “transformed into a resource for excavators”—as well as locators, facility operators and homeowners.
“That resource can be a tool that is used in many different ways, whether it be a contact number, the actual notification or just a sounding board for different best practices,” Novy says. “I think it just gets a little bit stronger each year and everybody plays their part.”