Black Hills Energy (BHE) provides natural gas and electric energy to nearly 1.3 million customers throughout eight states (Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming). For the past three years, Damage Prevention Manager Nathan Stewart has overseen the company’s natural gas damage prevention efforts. Stewart has a team of 10 full-time staff who are responsible for interventions and other excavator education efforts, all intended to reduce damages to the company’s 8,000 miles of transmission assets.
BHE receives anywhere from 650,000 to 700,000 811 tickets annually. The company’s damage rate—a metric that shows the number of damages per 1,000 811 tickets—has hovered around 2.5 from 2018 to 2020. To reduce this rate, BHE introduced a number of new initiatives, including launching the predictive artificial intelligence solution Urbint Lens for Damage Prevention and empowering all employees, regardless of role, to take part in protecting BHE facilities.
At the Urbint Anticipate 2021 conference, Stewart shared more details about these initiatives and their success with Urbint Senior Implementation Manager Mike Jones. See below for highlights of their talk, or visit this webpage to watch the full conversation.
Damage prevention Q&A with Nathan Stewart
Can you tell us what your day-to-day looks like? What are some of the major initiatives that you currently lead at Black Hills Energy?
Every day has its own set of different, unique challenges and opportunities. We've tried to put in initiative after initiative the last couple of years. Some of the things we're currently working on is, obviously, with the Urbint application and using that to guide some of our activities. We're also doing some things on the locating side. We're trying to standardize all of our equipment. And we've gone through the process of bringing some locates in-house and helping to make that transition. We’re also working with our legislatures on improving our state laws in all six of our states.
Help us understand a little bit more about Black Hills Energy’s damage prevention efforts throughout the years. Did you try anything in the past that was unsuccessful or anything that was successful, and what got you to eventually choosing Urbint as your damage prevention solution?
Starting in Nebraska, we decided to go with a more aggressive approach to damage prevention. We were very successful basically doing a review of every damage and following up with who is responsible. Trying to correct that so this never happens again.
And then really trying to go out and do field-level training, even to the point of rolling up on the side of the curb with a TV stand, plug it into the cigarette lighter so that you can show people pictures or video of explosions and try to really show people the danger of what they're digging around to every day. And really just trying to be out more at the field level with the person actually digging on the backhoe. Trying to help him understand what the danger is of what he's working around.
We took our hits from around 4 per 1,000 to 1.5 over a three or four year period. That led to a bigger discussion in the company to say we should probably be trying these types of things and all six of our states.
That’s been the process over the last three years of building a team. We had no dedicated damage prevention folks. Now, we've got 10 that are dedicated to the cause.
I would say there's a lot of things that we tried that we probably don't do as much anymore. But, some of the core things that we started with, which are really just field-level interaction with excavation crews, as much training as we can roll out the door. And really I would say the last year or two we've really focused on site visits and making as many site visits to excavation crews, not only with my team, but with the broader operations team at Black Hills.
When you got started trying to pitch this idea of using predictive analytics to help drive your decision making, did you encounter any hesitancy within? What were those hesitations and how did you eventually overcome that?
People are often very resistant to change. There definitely were people that were highly skeptical and questioned it, which is a good thing, right? To make sure that what we're going to be spending our time and attention on is actually effective.
We actually started looking at AI the very first day that I started at the company as a damage prevention person full time. It went through a number of avenues. We were working with one vendor quickly. We had a quantitative analytics team at Black Hills and they said, “Why would we buy something? Maybe we could build it ourselves,” which might integrate better with Black Hills systems if we have control over how it's built and those things.
We actually spent a whole year with our quantitative analytics team trying to build our own version of an AI tool. [Things] dramatically changed, and we no longer have a quantitative analytics team at Black Hills. And we really had no support for that tool...it kinda just fell by the wayside.
That led us to Urbint. There was an evolution of how we got to where we are with Urbint and using AI to analyze the tickets.
Read: How Gas Utilities Use Artificial Intelligence Technology for Damage Prevention
What are some of your biggest challenges on a day-to-day basis with these initiatives that you're rolling out and trying to continue to keep this line pointed downward?
The root causes [of] our damages is what I've always consistently focused on. Two out of every three damages are because an excavator doesn't do what they should do. Whether it's using the system and calling 811, keeping their ticket refreshed, maintaining their marks, ordered down to hand digging and potholing and all the other best practices that they should do to prevent hitting a line. Two out of every three fall into that category. One out of every three is Black Hills did something wrong. We didn't mark it accurately or our records are poor or things like that.
Check out: 4 Causes for Excavation Accidents and How to Prevent Them
As I try to look at how we can influence all of those things every day, I start to look at...we're six very geographically large states. We have a very geographically large footprint, and I have 10 team members under me to try to cover this area. It is almost impossible to be everywhere. We need to watch everything, we need to watch to actually lower damages.
What I ultimately end up thinking is we need to engage the thousands of other employees that Black Hills has that probably drive by almost every job site every day. Whether they're an ops tech or a service tech or other employees, if we could somehow engage them in the effort to monitor what's happening in every town and. That's where a win is.
But that, really, as you talk about challenges that we bump up against, it’s culture. Not only external culture and people not wanting to follow the law and do things that are safe. But internally, “Wait, you want me to stop and talk to someone that doesn't work for Black Hills about what they're doing and correct them on their behaviors? No, thanks.”
That's where my team has really taken it upon themselves to really try to change our internal culture. Protecting our facilities is the most important thing we can do. Black Hills is trying to raise that all the way up to the CEO of the company to preach that message. Because I feel like if we're all bought in—all 3,500 employees at Black Hills—that we can actually make the difference and lower damages.
Beginning early last year, we really started pushing the concept that...we call them excavation site visits. We had a short form where people could go in, anyone has access to it, answer five quick questions about the job site that you just basically drove by or saw or were aware of. Do they have a ticket? Do they appear and have flags in the area? Do they appear to be here? Are they wearing safety gear?
We really pitch this as anybody with any experience level could do a site visit. You don't have to have spent 20 years in the excavation industry to understand a little bit about whether there is a problem. We've even got office clerks, never really spend any time in the field, but they may go out for lunch and they're like, “Hey, I drove by a site and I didn't see any flags.”
Have you run into people within Black Hills who don't want to do site visits because they don't think it's part of their jobs? And what do you say to them?
The answer is yes, not everyone is throwing parades and thinking this is the greatest thing that ever happened. I'm really interested in the people that are wanting to help and wanting to prevent damages.
But, I think really the longer you talk about it, everyone understands it. It is all of our jobs. These are our facilities to protect them and to protect our employees. Every time there's a line damage, there's a potential for something to go wrong and harm one of us, the employees that are responding to fix. Obviously, there's a potential to harm customers and people on the excavation crew and everyone else. I think the longer you talk about that, people understand it's all of our jobs. It's all of our jobs, if you work for the gas company, to protect your assets.
When your employees log into Urbint, they have a list of potential action types at their disposal. One of these is of particularly strategic interest to you. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the no-call audit?
We were pretty insistent early on that we have the ability to to register or account for times when an employee drives by and sees someone digging without a ticket. And we're really trying to make a big emphasis for people to really prioritize stopping. If you're driving down the road and you see someone digging without tickets, you are expected to stop.
It needs to be documented somewhere, right? We have a site visit, which is the five questions that I mentioned before, but this action is just directly strictly looking at someone that's digging without a ticket. And some of the same questions exist. Are they at least hand digging? And other things. If they're also not calling with a ticket. But, it requires them to put down what they know. Who is the company? If you know who they are, what's their phone number?
And then those get passed to the full-time team to go do a follow up on. We've actually had 88 different people that we've caught digging without tickets. And it was done by 49 different Black Hills employees.
Look: 5 Reasons Homeowners Don’t Call 811 Before They Dig
Can you walk us through some of your long-term visions that you have of working with Urbint as well as your overall damage prevention goals?
Our first goal is to be top quartile in the industry, which from the numbers we've looked at looks to be around 1.5 hits for 1,000. And we would like to be there as soon as we can. But ideally, less than 5 years, we'd like to be at 1.5 hits per 1,000. We have a long way to go, right? To get from 2.5 down to 1.5. This year, we're getting close to 2. We've still got some more work to do over the next two to three to four years to really make that happen.
I really believe there's no silver bullet. There's no one thing that's gonna carry you across that finish line. You really have to make improvements across the board internally and externally. Do a lot of training. Improve a lot of processes. You gotta be getting better at locating. You gotta be reducing your excavator damages, and you've gotta get people calling in.
A big obstacle in damage prevention is not having enough staff. That's hard to fix. How do you get the biggest impact with the staff that you have?
It is a challenge and it's one that I expect everyone that's involved in damage prevention faces. We really focus a lot on engaging field-level employees and providing them support. If they have problems doing site visits, we need to help them. If they run into problem excavators in their area and no one's doing anything about it, we prioritize driving over there and dealing with that excavator so that they're not feeling frustrated that I'm saying something and no one's ever dealing with it.
We also try to conduct as many live in-person training sessions as we can with excavation crews. My team also does a lot of site visits and we're also trying to do a full review of every damage. What happened, who caused it? Then make a phone call to that person and make sure it doesn't happen again.
Also see: 4 Damage Prevention Reminders from Industry Veterans
What does a truly effective site visit look like?
One that doesn't end up in a damage. That's what effective is. If you stopped the pipe from getting hit, it looked like it was gonna get hit, but it didn't get hit.
A failure is you stopped there and it's still got hit, which believe it or not, happens. And that's what we're starting to learn now. The win was doing a ton of site visits, but that's not the win because you could still be there and you didn't stop it.
Every excavation crew is different. Some of it takes, “You will stop right now and dig safely or call in a ticket,” or whatever it is. Other people that don't require that heavy-handed persuasion. Trying to talk to them about, “This is unsafe and it's dangerous for your employees,” makes them do what they need to do.
What would be some more of the nuance that might be required between an excavator behaving improperly?
I would say it's collecting enough information to filter back into the algorithm that the Urbint built. You would need to at least collect enough data to help that model learn from that and say, “Okay, every time we've stopped and checked ABC plumbing, we asked five questions about their behavior.” Did it always come back clean? Because then that should say, “We don't need to be visiting ABC Plumbing any more,” and pull that back into the model. We don't need to be making a visit there, right? But if every time we stop, they're never hand digging, that needs to go back and maybe we need to be visiting them more often.
Ultimately, that's what a successful site visit is. I guess there's probably a two-prong success story on a site visit. Did you stop the damage? That's number one. Secondarily, did you collect enough data that [the site visit] was valuable?
To watch the recording of Preventing Damages with AI: A Conversation with Black Hills Energy, see this webpage. Visit this page to check out all of the content from the 2021 Anticipate conference.