Fred Johnson on Mississippi 811
Friday, August 11 has a special meaning for Fred Johnson, the operations manager of Mississippi 811. The date is 811 Day, and is a reminder for people across the state to call before they dig.
Johnson recently spoke with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about Mississippi 811, and its efforts to keep residents from damaging underground utilities when digging. Johnson is a graduate of Corinth High School and attended Northeast Mississippi Community College. He and his wife have four children.
What is Mississippi 811?
“Mississippi 811 is a call center authorized by the state of Mississippi. What we mainly do is facilitate the ability for excavators to communicate to utility owners and operators their intent to excavate around their facilities.”
What do you mean, facilities?
“Utility lines and anything else that may be connected to those lines that is underground.”
Also who are the excavators you’re talking about?
“It could be anyone from a homeowner installing a mailbox or putting up a fence … contractors who are doing major earth moving, and anything in between. Anyone who is going to do any digging or excavating in the state is required by state law to notify the utility companies by calling Mississippi 811.”
So if I’m doing any kind of digging, I need to call?
“There’s an exception. If you’re digging less than 12 inches deep and use only hand tools, there’s an exception that you don’t have to call. If you exercise that exception, you’re still subject to a problem – a shovel can cut a cable in two pretty quick. A shallow gas line, if it didn’t cut the line, (could) scrape the coating off … It’s unusual gas lines would be that shallow, but your telephone, cable TV (line), may not be that deep. It’s a free call and it doesn’t cost anything to come out and mark the lines.”
How is the law enforced?
“Well up until this year, there really hasn’t been any enforcement other than filing civil actions against (a violator) in court. Staring this year, a board called the Mississippi Damage Prevention Board (is being organized) to look at the complaints people file through an AVR (Alleged Violation Reporting Form). (The AVR) can be accessed on our Web site, or they can visit msdamageprevention.com.”
What happens when a violation is reported?
“It’s all spelled out in the law itself. Basically, the board will review complaints, and if it finds them to be valid, they will take action. (The action they take) varies – it could just be a letter to the violator on the first offense. A second offense may require (the violator) to go through some training, and eventually (the violation could lead to) monetary fines, and maybe a combination of all three.”
No jail time?
“Jail time is not specified in the law. If it were a bad enough situation, you could see how someone might be arrested, but it might be based on a different statute, like criminal negligence.”
Are there a lot of violations right now?
“I’m sure there are a lot. As far as we know, the only ones we know about are the ones filed through the AVR (system). We have some 42 or 43 damage prevention coordinating councils that meet sometimes quarterly, but mostly twice a year, and it’s an opportunity for excavators, enforcement (officials) and anyone who has anything to do with excavation to come together to discuss issues. Our damage prevention coordinators get calls constantly from utility owners/operators making them aware of different violations going on. We try to respond to those complaints, and make sure (the violators) are aware of what the law is.”
Once someone calls 811, how long does it take for utilities to be marked?
“About all of the utilities have two working days to respond to the notice. That’s in normal circumstances, there are exceptions, such as for surveyors who need (utilities) marked for design work. (For those projects) utilities are allowed seven days.”
That’s because surveyors are not digging, right?
You mentioned contacting utilities to notify them that underground lines need to be marked. How do you know which utility companies to notify?
“Under state excavation law, utility companies are required to be a member of 811. When they sign up, they are required to send us what we call their database. Basically it could be in written or electronic form. We take that information and embed it into our computer system. Our operators will pull up a map when they’re taking locate information and they will mark where the excavations will take place. The computer system knows to notify those companies (with utilities in the affected area).”
How often are these databases updated?
“By law, the utility companies are supposed to update us on an annual basis. We do have utility members who update us more often, which is the smart thing to do. They don’t want to go a year without protecting their underground facilities.”
What is your annual budget?
“Approximately $2.5 million.”
Where does that money come from?
“It comes from those messages we send to utilities. We charge them (the companies) per locate request, so each utility pays their fair share based on the amounts of (requests) they receive.”
I figured the person who calls in would have to pay, not the utility company.
“No, it’s a free service to the excavator, and there are several reasons for that. If I’m going to put up a fence in my yard, I will probably hesitate to call if it’s going to cost me. These utility companies want to be notified, because it’s cheaper for them to mark their facilities and avoid them being damaged and having to repair them.”
How many people work in the call center? And how many calls do you handle?
“We’re up to 13. It varies, but it’s increasing. For 2016, we received 347,638 calls. That’s not the only way people can get in touch with us. We also have online through our portal. (Contractors) can go online and enter their own tickets. We have quite a few larger contractors … who enter their own tickets.”
How soon do I need to call before I have to do a project?
“It’s important to do it two working days before you plan to dig. When you call, you’re going to need to provide good driving directions from the nearest intersecting road to your excavating site. What we’ve been running into lately, is people using Google and Bing maps, and will give directions on what they’re seeing, and so many times it’s wrong. We don’t want to take chances.”