When Your Assets Are Underneath, It’s Good to Have Friends Digging in Low Places

By: Emeka Igwilo
Vice President, Operations Support
Southern Company Gas

As a group of natural gas utilities, Southern Company Gas is a responsible caretaker of our pipeline assets that weave an underground infrastructure supporting the individual communities where we live, work and play with our loved ones. Nothing drives this solemn duty home more than when we receive notice of a damage to one of these critical assets.

Even though our work is usually invisible to the average consumer, we pour our hearts and souls into installing, operating and maintaining our underground pipelines that literally comfort our communities and underpin the fabric of a modern society with warm homes, hot cooked meals and thriving businesses. Over the past decade, we have been working tirelessly to modernize our pipelines and as a result, we have one of the most modern pipeline systems in the country. We follow all safety measures. We alert the public and our customers and communities that calling 811 before you dig is the law and that using the utility line locating service is free to the public. Keeping our stakeholders safe and informed is the mission of the Southern Company Gas Asset Protection department.

In our company, we believe that leveraging modern technology coupled with insight gained from data and analytics is the best way to consistently improve the safety and reliability of our pipeline assets. This means we must perfect our abilities in an environment of constant change in natural gas demand, technology improvements and regulatory requirements. Keeping a constant eye on asset data details and sharing that data with key internal expert groups, we work together to correlate data quality with management effectiveness, and we continue to invest in our data systems.

There always is opportunity for improvement, but we know who we are – an organization that learns and adapts. Our commitment is to be relentless in our quest to get better every day. The first step in doing that is to look in the mirror and acknowledge that we must redefine relationships with other stakeholders we work with in the mission of asset protection. The relationship MUST be a partnership geared toward a shared outcome of public safety grounded in mutual accountability and trust.

So, when there is damage to our pipeline infrastructure, it’s hard not to take it personally (I do – each one hurts). We are forced to disappoint our customers by interrupting their scheduled service appointments and diverting our technicians to attend to these emergencies. We dispatch our well-trained workforce to the damage site alongside first responders, who work doggedly to make the area safe for the public, before we begin the hard work of making the repairs and restoring service to our customers. These situations are sometimes risky and dangerous, but our workforce is well trained. They have made a commitment to our customers and work with other emergency personnel to provide relief to our public. Sometimes, when the number of damages is high, we scratch our heads wondering, are excavators causing this misery out of apathy?

Well, of course not. Most every excavator, contractor or home improvement enthusiast wants to do the right thing. We know because we reconsidered our approach and decided to treat these stakeholders like next-door neighbors. Reaching out to shake their hands and getting to know them better made all the difference. We discovered no villains. Instead, we discovered people who want to be accountable and even help us improve. A common goal unites us. Each of us wants to keep our neighbors safe, create jobs and help our communities grow and thrive.

Today, these improved relationships have put us in a different place with all four of our utilities in Georgia, Illinois, Tennessee and Virginia. In our metro Atlanta footprint of Atlanta Gas Light, we are creating a Watch and Protect program, similar to a concierge service, for excavators with big projects. Watch and Protect is a best practice from our Nicor Gas utility in Illinois. We’re there, as much as possible, with our friends as they start their digging projects to make sure our lines are properly marked before the shovel enters the ground. We work with their schedules so that productivity is not lost over waiting for lines to be marked. We ultimately plan to expand this to the rest of the state. We’re innovating with technology partners like Urbint to leverage our data, predict and pinpoint risk using artificial intelligence powered models, identify strategies and blend them to target, address and prevent pipeline damages.

Our Virginia Natural Gas utility has made significant resource investments in asset protection, which has helped it continue ongoing improvements in performance.

In smaller markets like Chattanooga, where most of Chattanooga Gas’ damages are occurring in newer neighborhoods during home improvement projects, we’ve paired our heat maps and predictive technologies with an awareness campaign, “I Made the Call. Will You?” The campaign is targeted at homeowners who are putting in a mailbox, planting a garden, spreading gravel or building a fence. They may forget or don’t know to call 811 and have their utility lines marked before digging.

During our first month of implementation, we experienced more than a 40% increase in calls to have lines located. This confirmed what we have always known, combining insights derived from data and technology with a refreshed and highly effective awareness campaign works.

This year, August 11, which is National “Call 811 Before You Dig” Day, we are reminded to say THANK YOU, first and foremost, to our first responder lifesavers who are there with us when we respond to a damaged line. We also acknowledge and thank our excavator friends who want to do the right thing before going beneath with their earth scoopers. And to all our beloved customers who choose to call 811 before they dig a hole, even just below the surface, we appreciate you.

Please pay it forward. Be a good neighbor by saying something when you observe a digging project about to happen and you don’t see any utility flag markings.

Thanks to ALL our friends who are digging in low places.

Know What’s Below, Call Before You Dig

Every day, your neighbors are picking up the phone to call 811 before they dig. They’re doing their part to reduce the risk of harmful incidents, expensive accidents, and natural gas outages for themselves and your community.
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