FCC simplifies excavation damage prevention with nationwide number

Contractors who excavate near utilities have a new number to call before digging. And it’s only three digits.

The Federal Communications Commission has designated “811” as the new, free-of-charge nationwide number for contractors and others to call before beginning excavation. The number is currently active in some locations, and will be in full use in two years.

“The idea is having a three-digit number reference would be easier,” said Mark Wigfield, spokesman for the FCC. “It gets more used.”

This nationwide abbreviated dialing code will provide a replacement for an array of numbers previously used to connect to communication systems operated by underground utility operators and state and local governments.

Prior to 811, contractors had to rely upon “One Call” notification systems that allowed them to give advance notice of their plans to excavate. Utility companies could then mark underground facilities prior to excavation.

“If you’re a contractor, you definitely don’t want to dig up a gas line,” Wigfield said. “That wouldn’t be a good day for you.”

Contractor organizations such as the National Utility Contractors Association and the Associated General Contractors of America backed the FCC’s push for simplification. These groups say safety will improve as a result of increased calls prior to excavation.

Some contractors doing business across state lines faced confusion because of the different numbers designated for each state.

The FCC ordered that 811 be operational within two years of the number being designated in the federal register. All service providers must use 811 as the national abbreviated dialing code and discontinue use of other dialing arrangements for access to One Call centers.

One Call centers must also provide their toll-free numbers to carriers to ensure callers who dial 811 do not incur toll charges.

Wigfield said the switch to 811 will take two years because some states are using that designation for other services and will need to make changes. He said 811 is one of only eight “N11” codes, five of which have been assigned for nationwide use.

The nation’s 71 One Call Centers receive about 15 million calls annually, and were established by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1994. The department estimates 40 percent of incidents in which underground pipelines and other facilities are damaged were caused by those who did not call before digging.

In the 2002 Pipeline Safety Improvement Act, the federal government strengthened its support for the One Call program by requiring the DOT and FCC to establish a three-digit, nationwide, toll-free number to be used by state One Call systems.

“Now there’s no question about what number you would call,” Wigfield said.

Patrick Beeson can be contacted at [email protected].