By Gary Sloman
New Mexico 811
I am very pleased with the 2013 survey results because they are a strong indication that staff and our processes are working well. Customers (excavators who request tickets) and members (who fund the organization’s services) both indicate NM811 is doing very well. While our overall marks are better than last year, there is a clear indication from the comments provided by those surveyed that NM811 is expected to help things improve in certain areas. One of the challenges for the board of directors and staff is to ensure we keep a reasonable balance about what NM811 can do for excavators who pay nothing for the services and facility owners who fund the organization’s services. While all stakeholders would like to see NM811 do more to help them do what they need to do, there needs to be a benefit for those who are providing the funding, or being driven by an overwhelming industry expectation, or a compliance requirement of the law or Public Regulation Commission (PRC) regulations.
Some of the comments also suggest that some members and some customers do not have a clear understanding about who NM811 is or what the requirements of the law are for that stakeholder. I would like to clear up some of these perceptions with some general comments, then I will let you know what we are doing to meet the concerns expressed in the comments of both surveys. First, because NM811 works closely with all stakeholders groups, it is easy to be confused about who we are and our structure. NM811 is not a state agency, nor do we receive operating funds from the state. We are a non-profit organization and we do not fall under the public utility regulation act rules of the PRC. We are subject to the excavation law and PRC Rules & Regulations just like anyone, but we are not regulated by the PRC. NM811 does not make the laws, nor do we enforce the laws. NM811 may provide testimony when laws or rules are being considered, but NM811 does not lobby legislation or rules. State law provides that the PRC may establish rules and regulations to administer excavation laws which are passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. Part of the PRC’s duties in administering the law is to enforce the law, which they do through the Pipeline Safety Bureau. NM811 is a registered New Mexico corporation and is subject to the same business rules, laws, and requirements that any other business is, except we do not pay income tax on the membership dues we receive. NM811 is governed by a board of directors, elected by the members in their respective classifications, and the board governs NM811 by setting broad policies and procedures for NM811. The board is ultimately responsible for whatever the organization does or doesn’t do and is accountable to the membership.
In both the Customer Survey and the Member Survey, respondents expressed concern for the wait times on the phones when calling NM811. While the survey results show a slight improvement over last year, the frequency of high wait times is still a concern. NM811 acknowledges after last year’s survey that wait times needed to be improved and staff was added and made many adjustments to their procedures to streamline call times. While the average wait time improved, the increase in call volumes over ran the efficiencies staff gained. In November 2013, the Board of Directors approved hiring two additional operators, bringing NM811 to the maximum number of operator stations available for ticket processing. The two new operator positions will be filled in February 2014 and begin six weeks of training. They are scheduled to be on the floor by mid-March and taking tickets. This brings the total number of operators to 15. When staff moved in to the new building in September of 2011 we employed only 8 operators.
Regarding this same issue, some respondents indicate that the high wait times were impacting their ability to respond to emergencies because they couldn’t get a ticket made in a timely manner. I should educate stakeholders here because there seem to be some underlying misconceptions about process and responsibilities. First of all, NM811 has set up an emergency number to call 24X7 which bypasses the phone wait queue. That emergency number is 1-866-344-6662. If you have any emergency or damage to report and you call this number, the phone system automatically takes you out of the normal queue and puts you at the top of the emergency queue so that the next available operator will take that call. Please record this number where you can find it in an emergency. This number was set up to eliminate having to wait in the queue. Secondly, in an emergency, you don’t have to wait to bring the situation under control. NM811’s policy is that it may take up to two hours for spotters to respond, but there is no requirement under the law that mandates a underground facility owner (UFO) has to wait two hours before they can begin working to bring the situation under control.
Another one of NM811’s strategies for getting and keeping wait times under control is to get excavators to migrate from calling in requests to entering them in over the web. A few comments in both surveys indicate that people are not aware of the website, and those who are familiar with it indicated it isn’t user friendly and it’s difficult to enter a ticket into. NM811 has hired a consultant who has developed a new website which is much improved. The new website is easy to navigate and to find information, is easier for staff to keep updated with current information and will allow customers to enter a ticket on line in one, easy to use, fill-in-the-blank format without having to navigate to different portions of the form. The website will be launched mid-February 2014 and will give users a few weeks to become familiar with the new look and feel. By March 2014, NM811 will implement a new web portal feature which will provide access to the new, easy to use ticket process. NM811’s goal is to structure the web portal over the next couple of years so that users will be able to enter a ticket using NM811’s improved Google-based map features, draw your white lines on the map, complete a few required information fields and the ticket will be completely processed without operator intervention. When this feature is available, you will be able to process a web ticket 24X7 and the system will include an electronic copy of the photo imagery of the dig site, along with the white lined area to the UFOs to spot. Future phases will allow users to update their map layers, contact information, make copies of the ticket, provide positive response, and look up a member’s invoice and billing statement. While the process will take some time to move people away from calling in a ticket on the phone to entering a ticket on the web, it will be easy to do and users migrating to the web will help reduce call wait times. Some of the one call centers now using these features we are installing have up to 80% of the tickets input over the web because it is easier than calling it in. And yes, another concern identified in the survey is the mapping capability of NM811 operators and our system. We are in the process of utilizing Google mapping in the web portal ticket function, which puts all users on the same map page as the system and will use many of the map tools users are already familiar with.
Regarding the membership survey, the most pressing issue members wanted NM811 to focus on was public awareness and education. Once again for 2014, NM811 is bundling public awareness safety announcements in partnership with the New Mexico Broadcasters’ Association, the NM811 Magazine and our electronic sign. The board only funded 40% of the required money, but staff is hoping members will help fund the balance required for the program because the benefits are so great. To encourage participation, staff has cut the bundle options price in half from last year. Staff will continue to support stakeholder groups for education and public awareness as we can.
The one item that the membership survey indicated that had the largest change in focus from last year was the enforcement process. While NM811 does not enforce the law, we are committed to helping stakeholder groups understand their obligations of the law and cooperating with the state Pipeline Safety Bureau as they perform their duties. The purpose of enforcement is to get individuals to change their behaviors in order to provide a safer environment for all of us. As more and more information becomes available through the Damage Reporting Enforcement Tracking System, the better the opportunities NM811 will have to educate the public on desired behavior changes. Of course, some people know what the right thing is to do and until they are held accountable by the state, they will not voluntarily change their behaviors. We, at NM811, won’t be able to help these people.
NM811 will not publish the survey comments in this issue in order to save space, but instead, will place the entire survey results, including all the comments, on our web page at: www.NM811.org. NM811 is committed to damage prevention and helping stakeholders improve, not only their processes, but invite them to also help us improve ours. We appreciate those who took the time to fill out the survey and help us understand how we can better serve the industry. Together we can prevent damages.