WEST MIFFLIN — The call came in from a plumber in Altoona getting ready to dig a 4-foot-deep hole.
Tammy Corrie, a 24-year veteran customer service representative for Pennsylvania One Call System Inc., answered the phone at her corner cubicle and did some digging of her own.
Through a series of questions, and the help of software that marries telecommunications and mapping systems, she pinpointed the spot where the plumber planned to use a power excavator to cut a ditch from the street curb through a residential yard to replace a water line.
This one, routine hole would be close enough to buried pipes carrying water, waste, gas and electricity that five utilities and authorities had to be notified. She zoomed in on a digital map and circled the property. Within seconds, electronic alerts went out with details about the project’s timing and location.
The call was over in nine minutes. It was one of 812,000 phone or web notifications that the service center will field in a year.
One Call is a kind of air traffic control tower guiding excavators in for a safe landing, but the airport is the size of Pennsylvania and the tower is a former school building in the South Hills.
The 45-year-old nonprofit, which has annual operating revenues and expenses of $10.7 million, grew out of a collaboration between Allegheny County utilities in 1972. With more than 3,500 members — including utilities, companies and local governments — it is now the largest state One Call system in the nation, with nearly double the membership size of the next biggest system.
The mission is straight-forward: with a thicket of pipes providing crucial services and ferrying hazardous substances just below ground, there needs to be a universal communications system to keep people from accidentally digging into them.
Under the terms of a law first passed in 1974, an excavator must notify One Call at least three business days before digging. One Call matches the project location to its database of facilities and sends out notifications to its members who own buried lines. They respond that the area is clear or send a worker out to mark the ground above their facilities with colored paint or flags: red for electric, yellow for gas, orange for telecommunications, blue for drinking water and green for sewer.
Answering the phones
For nearly every utility mark sprayed on the ground throughout Pennsylvania, a call has come through the system’s headquarters in West Mifflin.
It takes a lot of effort and information to make the system seem simple. Twenty-four people work in the main call center from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Another three work in an addendum room staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year. An overflow area can hold 14 more.
Pennsylvania had the first computerized One Call system in the country and has been “pretty much on the cutting edge all the time” since then, said Bill Kiger, Pennsylvania One Call’s CEO, who has worked for the nonprofit since its founding.
He had to shout to be heard over the hum of cooling fans in the call center’s data storage room. He pointed to a wall of computers knit together with colorful cords that archive every computer screen change and phone call. “In this array here, there’s 144 terabytes of storage,” he said. “Just there! I have another exactly the same upstairs.”
Pennsylvania’s One Call system has to be nimble enough to encompass the state’s astonishing diversity of new and old buried infrastructure as well as both antique and modern information technology.
Yes, some new pipelines bear radio frequency identification tags that can convey their details to special readers at the surface, but nearly 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s miles of natural gas distribution mains were installed before 1940. Cell phone apps allow users to report and receive digging notifications in the field, but more than 1,000 municipal members of the system still get notifications by fax.
Asked if after four decades of this work he sees the world with a kind of infrastructure X-ray vision, Mr. Kiger laughed and picked up a hologram postcard that flashes between a city street scene and the pipes hidden below it.
“That’s up here, too,” he said, tapping his temple.
Trying to dig just once
For a new initiative expected to begin this summer, called Coordinate PA, One Call is developing a web-based system that will make it easier for utilities to share information about planned excavation projects so they can work on them simultaneously.
The idea is that with better planning and cooperation, utilities can avoid the costly cycle of digging up and paving roads just to see another utility with a separate project dig up and pave the same spot.
With major replacement projects overdue for natural gas, sewer, wastewater and water lines in communities throughout the commonwealth, “Why not have everybody together do this once?” Mr. Kiger said.
“The local property owners are going to be a whole lot happier that you’re not tearing up their street multiple times. And when you don’t disturb something that’s there, you are causing fewer problems and less impact on the lines as they age.”
The system’s paramount concern is safety. Mr. Kiger said that when One Call was launched, there were about nine excavation-related fatalities in Pennsylvania a year. “In the 90s, we went nine years without a fatality,” he said. “So I think that tells very readily that the system is working.”
A central part of One Call’s mission is making calling 811 — the universal One Call number — an essential step of every digging project, so One Call systems across the U.S. dedicate serious attention to training, education and public outreach.
Which is why a framed pair of jockey Victor Espinoza’s pants were propped against a wall in a conference room on the center’s second floor.
The jockey wore the 811 logo on his boots and pants when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes horse races in 2014 and on his boots and saddle during the first two races on his way to winning the Triple Crown in 2015. A group of One Call centers, energy companies and utilities pooled resources to sponsor him.
“For the money we put into this, it was unbelievable the return on investment that we had,” Mr. Kiger said, explaining the pants. “It worked out very, very well.”
The proof is in the phone calls.
When Ms. Corrie got to the part of the script where she asked how the Altoona plumber knew to call 811 she typed his answer: “Just knew to call before digging.”
Over her shoulder Mr. Kiger chuckled and gave a quiet cheer.
Laura Legere: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First Published May 25, 2017 12:00 AM