One Call in Europe

The One Call industry, so to speak, in Europe is quite different than North America. In the U.S. and Canada, locators are responsible for locating and marking assets with spray paint or flags at the dig location, but this practice is not common in Europe.  

The main difference is that in the U.S., each state has at least one Call operations center which is regulated to protect both people and assets. This is not the case in Europe and there are significant differences between countries. Generally, it can be said that northern countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom have developed One Call systems in various ways to handle One Call inquiries. In most cases the One Call systems inform the utilities who, in turn, issue plans to the person or company who made the enquiry. In some countries, like the UK, for example, the service is fully automatic and will send plans in a matter of minutes. 

In the southern region of Europe, there is no developed One Call equivalent; each utility has its own process which makes it very inefficient for contractors. This is also a disadvantage for asset owners, as they miss out on inquiries compared to a well-functioning One Call operation. Countries like Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and others have no strategy other than "do it yourself”. Even Germany, with multiple operators, still sees the majority of asset owners using their own systems. 

“Instead of providing physical locates, the system generates plans that are sent to users, often automatically
within minutes of the request.”

It is rather astonishing that in some countries the protection of buried assets and lives has such low priority, considering that the deployment of a One Call system is relatively simple compared to other IT systems an asset owner may have. One reason for this is the belief that "we are large, so everyone knows us, and we already receive every inquiry.” We know that this is far from true. For example, after implementing a One Call operation for a large asset owner in the UK, we were able to prove that the number of notifications increased compared to when the network owner had its standalone system. It proved that many companies excavated near their assets but didn’t make the enquiry via their legacy system.  

One reason some countries do not prioritize this is that management does not realize the potential impact of a major strike, particularly the reputational impact of such an event. 

LinesearchbeforeUdig, in the United Kingdom, now processes nearly four million inquiries a year, averaging around 17,000 to 18,000 requests per day. The efficiency gains for the entire industry are invaluable, as is the focus on damage prevention. 

Instead of providing physical locates, the system generates plans that are sent to users, often automatically within minutes of the request. This "instant gratification" makes the service popular among contractors and the public. 

While most systems are sending pdf plans, the Netherlands has a different approach and is sending digital data that can be viewed by Apps. This system operates under government legislation and follows a user-paid model. The plans sent to users are fully digital and can be accessed via a viewer that can be downloaded from the App Store or Play Store.  

The downside of the Dutch system has been the cost of building and operating it, especially for asset owners. The most significant drawback is its inability to achieve the original goal of  reducing damages. Even 12 years after its launch, the damage rate in the Netherlands remains around 6% for every hundred requests. This still represents a significant cost in terms of repairs and, more importantly, indirect costs such as injuries, business downtime, traffic disruptions, penalties, and reputational damage. Another difference between the Dutch system and the majority of the other One Call operations around the world is the user paid model. In the Netherlands it is primarily the professional  excavators who lodge enquiries, but small companies and private individuals hardly use the system or are aware of it.  

So, one conclusion here is that building a relatively sophisticated system doesn’t make sense if the underlying data (the asset location) is not reliable, which is still the case for many network locations. 

As mentioned, a major issue in the European market is the absence of initiatives for a One Call system in certain countries. While most asset owners agree on the benefits, the challenge lies in convincing the larger asset owners to commit to a central platform that serves the greater good of the entire market. 

I believe we still have a long way to go, but ultimately, asset owners in countries without an initiative will adopt the One Call idea, as it represents the most logical and effective way to handle inquiries and change behavior when it comes to excavation work.  

One other major step in reducing damages is to better document new assets and new connections. This requires asset owners to put qualitative criteria in their scope of works when they outsource new assets to their contractors. This includes criteria such as accuracy of the works within a centimeter limit as well as photographic documentation geo-referenced amongst other meta data. With the digital tools of today that allow blue collar workers to collect this data fast and without additional time, it will offer a huge impact on additional damage prevention over the life cycle of a buried asset.

Jan-Willem Nijman


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