Joining Ontario One Call means a large learning curve for a small municipality


By Andrea Clemencio

Every municipality is sure to experience growing pains with  the Ontario Underground Infrastructure Notification System Act. The Town of Lincoln became a voluntary member of Ontario One Call in June 2013, and experienced a dramatic learning curve.

Ontario One Call is a not-for-profit corporation, acting as the single point-of-contact for excavators, to request the location of underground infrastructure, before work begins. All non-municipal owners and operators of underground infrastructure were required to join as of June 19, 2013, and municipalities were required to join before June 19, 2014.

The Town of Lincoln is located in the Niagara area, with approximately 23,000 residents and about 5,500 metered accounts. The Town owns and maintains approximately 200 kilometres of water and sewer main. The Regional Municipality of Niagara provides treated water through trunk main, and the Town delivers it to customers through two distinct Class 2 water distribution systems.

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The Town ensures operators are best equipped to perform locates, through extensive on-the-job training and certification as damage prevention technicians, under the Ontario Regional Common Ground Alliance.

During regular operations, operators are typically paired, and locates are assigned through work orders each morning, along with other tasks. Assigned work is grouped by task, but varies daily so that all operators are regularly doing a variety of tasks. Junior operators are always learning from senior ones. Three service locators and three bar locators are used, and regularly maintained and replaced with newer technology.

For the past 10 to 15 years, town council took an aggressive but rewarding approach with infrastructure planning and strongly believes in sustainable capital planning for water and wastewater. The Town’s water and wastewater systems are operating at full-cost recovery, with capital and operating costs financed by local revenues without provincial or federal funding. This approach has fostered a general pride in staff, operations and infrastructure.


Before joining Ontario One Call

Before we signed on, it would be safe to say the process of handling locate requests was “loose,” simply because, like many departments in many organizations, habits were formed over the years, and without incentive, no changes were made.

  • Operators were responding on average to 500-600 locate requests per year, or a monthly average of 50 locates. This fluctuated with good weather and the warm seasons.
  • Sanitary sewers were rarely located, even though it was being requested.
  • Decades-old triplicate forms were used to record locate sketches and pertinent information.
  • Locate requests were entered into work order software, but performance data about requesters or number of requests was not monitored.
  • Response time averaged 5-10 business days.
  • The entire process was inefficient, with the same locate request processed/viewed by eight parties.
  • No trending or analysis was performed, to monitor what we were doing.

The process for handling locate requests had not changed in years, and was tedious and paper-heavy. Requests came in by phone and were entered electronically into a simple computerized maintenance management system. Unavoidably, phone calls were occasionally dropped, records were misplaced and mistakes were made.
Perhaps of greatest concern was our reliance on contractors obeying the Ontario One Call message that the Town was not on the list of utilities being notified. As such, contractors had to notify us directly about the planned excavation. This was not always done, and breaks, nicks or near misses were happening a few times a week in the busy months.

Challenges we faced

Council was fully supportive of the voluntary move to become a member of Ontario One Call. They did request the cost of outsourcing locates be explored in the future, which was a valid concern and wise recommendation. An initial comparison of costs was prepared and found to be similar. However, the benefits of keeping operators familiar with the infrastructure was considered by staff to be paramount, and outsourcing is not being considered at this time. Council also had to approve the signing of the service agreement, once finalized.

Once the agreement was settled, the first significant challenge was ensuring mapping data set-up by Ontario One Call was accurate, and correctly differentiated regional infrastructure, which is co-mingled throughout Lincoln’s systems. Luckily, our mapping data was current and reasonably accurate, but the process of transferring and reviewing mapping data took several months and iterations, through web meetings and teleconference calls. Shape files containing all infrastructure information and attributes were provided to a specialized mapping group, and the newly revised map, containing Lincoln’s information, was posted online for a review.

Breaks, nicks or near misses were happening a few times a week in the busy months before the Town joined Ontario One Call.
Breaks, nicks or near misses were happening a few times a week in the busy months before the Town joined Ontario One Call.

Clearing the planned excavation of any municipal services in the work area, or “all-clears,” can be provided by Ontario One Call. This saves the request coming into the municipal system. We did ask for this filter, but it should be clear that road segments containing municipal infrastructure will not be cleared. A stretch of road from one intersection to the next must be completely clear of municipal infrastructure for Ontario One Call to apply this filter.

A firm notification scheme was required, covering the process for holidays, after hours and regular hours, and notification definitions and roles. For example, is it better to fax, email, or call? Who should requests be sent to for what scenarios? What about lunch hour, vacations, outages? What if the regular receiver is away at a meeting and it’s an emergency locate request? Ontario One Call has had to use the notification scheme a few times since we joined, and the outcome was not entirely successful. This has forced us to consider alternatives.

Consideration was required on how to best handle requests by the Town, for Town projects. As a member, Ontario One Call will notify you of your own locate requests, so to save duplication, we process internal locate requests the same as external requests. This also serves as a frequent test of the system, ensuring request information we provide is thorough and valid, and that the process is efficient.

Either out of habit, history or complacency, sanitary sewers were not being located by the Town. Although it was agreed upon that not all locate requests require sewer locate information, there are excavation projects that require proper and reasonably accurate marking of laterals. This was a challenge.

Sewer locating with camera and sonde would be the last choice, due to resources needed to arrange access and to record video in each lateral. If we were to provide sewer locate data, this would have to come from locate cards if they existed and were filed correctly; from as-built drawings; or from sewer inspection videos with camera data calibrated and correct.

Two major changes had to occur. A decision had to be made for each locate request on whether sanitary sewer information was needed. Resources had to be reassigned to allow for sanitary sewer information to be compiled, before the request was issued to the operator in the field. These two additional tasks were assigned to the Supervisor and the Technical Services Department, respectively.

We had to decide about storm sewer locates. Storm sewers are not regularly marked on locates. If operators are aware of significant storm infrastructure within the proposed excavation area, it is marked on the documentation.

We had to confirm that locate markings on the private side were not to be provided for sanitary sewer, and private water markings were only made if the signal is clear and certain.

The documentation challenge still looms. Paperwork related to locate requests is cumbersome. The ticket from Ontario One Call has a significant amount of information that may be helpful to the locator. Key information on the tickets is highlighted and attached to the work order.

The Town’s stake-out report form itself required significant updating, clarifying proximity to locate marks, liabilities and sewer locating. It is still filled out by hand, relying on the artistic skills of the operator in a small but informative sketch. However, the form at this time is not considered to be a significant bottleneck in the overall process.

Ready for change, equipped with locators and a full staff, the Town of Lincoln “went live” with Ontario One Call in June 2013. Since then, on average, the number of requests tripled in the busy months and more than doubled in the slower colder months.

Graph showing spike in locate requests after Lincoln joined Ontario One Call.
Graph showing spike in locate requests after Lincoln joined Ontario One Call.

Next steps

Budget time begins in the late summer months in Lincoln. To prepare for that, we are researching our successes and challenges with the locates process, and deciding where our next investments may need to be. Currently, our equipment is satisfactory, our training is ongoing, and our staff resources are sufficient.

Our largest hurdle in the near future is documentation. It still requires far too many people entering repeated information in a system that is paper-based and difficult to trace or cross-reference.

We are hoping to adopt software to minimize redundancies, and hardware to streamline the operators in the field. It is also anticipated that these software changes will allow us to better participate in the 360 Feedback program. Also, we will be able to provide feedback to Ontario One Call when locates are complete, and help trend locate information for better planning and budgeting in the future.

We are also in the midst of digitizing all locate records, to allow for rapid access. Some of our old locate records are handwritten in logbooks, referencing properties by the family name or even by its common use, like “Good’s butcher shop” or “the old red and white store,” rather than by municipal number.

The Town of Lincoln is moving through a transition in protecting its infrastructure. We are relieved that we joined early, to allow ample time to adjust to the increased demands of being a member. Other municipalities should consider unexpected issues and accordingly budget and prepare.

Andrea Clemencio, P.Eng., is manager, water and wastewater with the Town of Lincoln. This article appeared in ES&E’s July/August 2014 Issue.



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