Dial 811 first, Martha’s Vineyard Dig Safe Inspector urges


It was pure happenstance when Island Dig Safe inspector Andrew Farrissey drove by a backhoe operator who was poised to sever the underground utility cables serving downtown Oak Bluffs on a recent Friday afternoon.

“It was around five o’clock, I was driving into O.B. to get something to eat, when I drove by this guy who was just about to dig through every phone line going into downtown Oak Bluffs,” said Mr. Farrissey in a recent telephone interview with The Times. “A landscaper was replacing a water service, work he doesn’t usually do. He didn’t have the permit. No one had called Dig Safe. If he’d kept going, the phones and the Internet would have been down. A lot of people would have been affected. No store owner in O.B. would have been able to use their credit card machines.”

Merchants and citizens of Oak Bluffs dodged a bullet. This time.

Dig Safe or don’t dig at all.

“Any time you dig, you have to call 811 first,” said Mr. Farrissey, referring to the toll-free phone number for Dig Safe. “If it’s an emergency, someone from Dig Safe will come ASAP, usually within an hour. If not, someone will be there within 72 working hours. It’s free, it’s mandatory, there’s no reason not to do it.”

Dig Safe” is the boots-on-the-ground part of a federal law that requires anyone planning to dig on public or private property to call 811 before they start. Local inspectors like Mr. Farrissey are contacted, usually by text, by the utility company that’s been contacted by the Dig Safe office. Then, the inspector will visit the dig site and mark the underground utilities with flags or with paint.

Dig Safe regulations cover a wide range of activity — from putting in a mail box to installing a septic tank. You, or your contractor, must have approval from Dig Safe before tearing up any terra firma. (The only clear exception is gardening with hand tools.) If you excavate without calling Dig Safe, you can incur a fine up to $1,000 for the first offense, and not less than $5,000 for any subsequent offense, not to mention the scorn of neighbors and town merchants on a small island in the North Atlantic with very long winters.

When used, the system works well.

“Most of the guys who’ve been in business on the Island have no problem at all,” said Mr. Farrissey. “But you have these guys who don’t have the depth of experience, and they miss the background logistics their bosses used to cover. It used to be that a landscaper was a landscaper. Now, if that guy has an excavator, and somebody has a leak, he’s a plumber, too.”

Mr. Farrissey was also critical of contractors who ask customers to make the call to Dig Safe, and he sounded a loud warning. “If the homeowner is doing the work, then they should make the call. But a contractor shouldn’t ask the homeowner to call Dig Safe. That’s not the right way to do business. It should be a red flag to the customer that this guy is either lazy or uninsured. If that contractor isn’t licensed and insured, the homeowner is on the hook. Even if he is [insured], the name on the Dig Safe ticket is the first name lawyers will go after if something goes wrong.”

The Vineyard factorMr. Farrissey says that there are nuances to digging on the Vineyard that make it even more imperative to call Dig Safe. “There’s always the unknown on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “What people know to be a road to be might not be written in the road layout plans. Someone decided it was easier not to cut this tree, or they weren’t allowed to, so the line went way over there. With Dig Safe, we put electronic signal on it and chase the particular line. That brings up another challenge – physically finding a little green phone box buried in poison ivy that’s full of mosquitoes and ticks, but that’s the Vineyard,” he said, laughing.

Mr. Farrissey, president of Farrissey Tele-comm, a company that installs underground pipes and wiring, was adamant that his public plea was motivated by the public good, not personal profit.

“I’m not looking to up my business. I have more than enough to do,” he said. “I’m not looking to throw anybody under the bus. But I’m sick of seeing contractors laying the liability off on homeowners. For most people, their biggest asset is their property. You’re putting that all at risk if you have an unlicensed contractor who’s not following the rules. But you can save yourself a world of trouble with one call.”