An Open Letter to Horizontal Directional Drillers (HDD)

This article was published in the 2024 Excavation Safety Guide.

Dear Operator,

As a former fire officer, I watched recent television coverage of several first responders injured in a western city explosion. I recognized that their quick decisions and heroic actions likely saved many lives. I know you’re busy and don’t want to hear about firefighters or how they risk their lives, but I must share that I am very worried for their safety. They put themselves in harms way to protect the public, rationalizing the risk by saying, “It’s what we do.” It’s also what the public expects of fire and police in cities and towns all over the United States. Sadly, many incidents that harm people are absolutely avoidable. After many of these explosions, like the one in the Northwest, responders risk their lives while the public is endangered. Many times, these events are preventable. 

As a fire service officer and an emergency trainer I have been educating responders in all 50 states on their response to natural gas and pipeline emergencies. Over the last few years I have been following the increased use of a tool you refer to as an HDD (horizontal directional drill). The Fire Service is not generally familiar with the types of construction equipment used by excavators to install underground facilities, such as directional drilling. In fact, responders use words like “small tanks,” or a “strange” backhoe to describe the vehicle or operations due to the unrecognizable tracks or excavating nature of the work. Since most of these installations are completed without consequence to underground facilities many responders don’t even understand what you do or how it works. In fact, it’s not how it works, but what the drill can do when it is not operated safely that truly affects responders. It’s not the call to 8-1-1, but it’s the subsequent 9-1-1 call after a damage occurs that impacts us. 

We are very public-safety oriented when we know the regulations. For example, if you were to block an  exit door in a restaurant, chain the exits in a high school gym on game night, or smoke while pumping gas, if there is a conscientious firefighter near you, you’ll hear about it! However, responders are not as aware of the safety recommendations of directional drilling. Educating responders about HDD is a great first step towards prevention. I am excited that some proactive states like Missouri, Pennsylvania, and others have been drafting legislation that allows local law enforcement or emergency responders to stop an excavator who is causing or risking a catastrophe.

In natural gas safety programs for emergency responders, I have seen the following problems: 

  • Responders are not familiar with the need to locate the path of the bore (or that the path has to be marked).
  • Responders are not familiar with the observation holes or why they are needed.
  • Responders do not know excavators are required to hand dig within the defined tolerance zone when working in proximity to underground utilities such as electric or gas lines.

They are, however, aware of and recognize the correlation between construction jobs using these trenchless technologies and their “runs” (response calls) increasing. They are also becoming uncomfortable with the length of time it sometimes takes the gas company to get there, often because the gas company is already at the site making repairs to similar damages. 

It is guaranteed that emergency services will always respond to an “odor of gas,” a “hit gas line,” or any other accident if called. Let me help you understand the responders just a bit better. First, they look at accidents differently than the general public or contractors. Many of you might not know when we respond we focus on three priorities or strategic goals: 

  1. Life Safety (preventing loss of life or injury)
  2. Incident Stabilization (trying to keep the problem from spreading)
  3. Environmental and/or Property Preservation (protecting property and the environment)

If you use directional drills while disregarding safe operational procedures then you are jeopardizing the lives of many, including responders. The proliferation of these hits/accidents based on 45 years of emergency response and the increasing number of these emergencies tells me we are headed toward a severe incident of national significance with multiple deaths, injuries, and damage. 

In fire service it has often been said, “There is no honor in fighting a fire that could have been prevented.” The industry also has a safety motto, “All accidents are preventable.” In both cases, prevention is the key. 

Obviously doing anything more efficient is desirable. Using HDD is certainly faster than using a backhoe or a shovel with less inconvenience to the public, and efficiency is not in direct conflict with safety. Speed leads to unsafe conditions. Even in the Fire Service there are concerns with speed and safety. I learned a cardinal safety practice as a recruit 45 years ago, “There is no running on the fire ground.” Rushing, disregarding procedures, or using a casual approach (“done this a thousand times”) not only puts your personnel in jeopardy, but may place emergency services at the scene with disastrous results. 

Directional underground drilling benefits the public, but progress should not be blind to the hazards and potential risks of a hit gas line that could have been avoided by simply taking the time to follow all safety procedures, such as: 

  • Calling 8-1-1 or submitting an online locate ticket before digging
  • Locating and waiting for services that mark the hazards
  • Respecting the marks
  • Digging holes for observation, and more...

Preventing a tragedy makes your whole operation safer. The moment you think “safety,” it also makes you safer. If not, the entire industry is headed toward an incident of disastrous proportions. My fear is that the emergency services will also be there and suffer injuries. In 45 years of my public safety experience many severe incidents of significance have had wide-ranging impact on an entire industry. Some are easily recognized because they are named after the “city” or the “company” involved. 

Every day you have a choice to make - speed versus safety. Sadly, in many cases a clear disregard for safety procedures, whatever the reason, may lead to a tragedy that could have been prevented. 

So, think safety – all day – every day! 

Michael Callan 
Retired Captain, Wallingford FD 
Responding to Utility Emergencies 

Michael Callan


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