The Intelligent Art of Locating

The Intelligent Art of Locating

Field Notes on Subsurface Investigation Methodology

Savvy (noun): having or showing perception, comprehension, or shrewdness especially in practical matters, practical know-how [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

The first thing that hits you when you walk through the doors of one of the four classrooms at the GPRS SIM certification facility on Silica Rd. in Toledo, Ohio is the distinctive smell of concrete sealant.

That’s because hundreds of Project Managers cycle through the doors for 101, 201, and 301 SIM training, so the 3,000 square foot post-tension concrete slab has to stand up to thousands of locates, which means a lot of marks. So, a lot of sealant. Paper towels, and the occasional mop are also on hand to clear the slab when the day’s training is complete.

The second thing you notice is that this is not your usual corporate training center. There is not a single suit to be found among the dozen or so men and women in the room. Jeans, t-shirts, work boots, knee pads, and ball caps are the uniform here. And while there are some tables and chairs for note taking, and a giant screen used to broadcast a training slide deck, all the tables and chairs roll away, and the big screen can also be used to transmit images of the hyperbola-shaped waves that are the stock in trade of a GPRS Project Manager, to better visualize what is hidden beneath the surface.

To the untrained eye, watching a class of Project Managers perfect their craft at Silica might seem chaotic. Depending on when you walk in, you’ll find a roomful of guys down on their knees on a smooth, hard concrete slab, sliding around a device the size of a deck of cards, searching for buried hazards in the maze of overlapping waves.

Their tools of the trade are deceptively simple: A standard straight edge, some markers, an iPad, and a handheld, portable GPR.

And what they learn to do with them is exceptional: locating rebar, conduit, pipes, and more with guaranteed 99.8% accuracy, to keep construction sites and facilities safe and up to date so that no one goes drilling or sawing through post-tension concrete blindly, causing thousands of dollars in damage, and potentially lost lives.

GPRS Project Managers do it all with nothing more than that tiny GPR device and the training they receive from some of the most engaged and encouraging instructors you’ll ever see. This is the only corporate classroom you’ll ever be in where the instructors get down on the floor with you so they can see what you see, provide a more experienced point of view, and help you improve.

Because the instructors – Field Support Training Specialists, Matt Vaillant, Evan Soto, and Training Manager, Mitch Streight, each experts in subsurface locating – aren’t here to run through some rote presentation or judge their students in comparison to each other.

They are here to do one thing very, very well: to mold already experienced and field-tested Project Managers into elite technicians who understand that locating is a marriage of hard science and inspiration – an intelligent art, if you will – following the SIM (Subsurface Investigation Methodology) curriculum painstakingly developed by Field Services Director, Jamie Althauser.

“The [Ground Penetrating Radar] scanner is dumb,” says Matt Vaillant. “It’s up to the person interpreting the data. You have to be savvy.”

The instructors understand and embrace that every Project Manager has their own way of scanning, and while imparting crucial information like defining critical targets, how to handle diffraction, and how far outside the surveyed section to place the scan boundaries, they are open to picking up new techniques that students have developed in the field. Because it’s the PMs in the field who have to creatively determine how to meet previously unmet challenges.

As Vaillant said, they have to be savvy. Luckily, savviness is a trait that can be taught and modeled, and SIM training is as much about the technique as the technical aspects of construction and as built locating.

The trainers also understand the limitations of the GPR units, and spend a good deal of time instructing students on the many small adjustments you can make in the field to be sure the scanner is properly calibrated to the appropriate scan direction, and reading clearly. In fact, if you ever come across a technician in the field who looks like he’s swiping his GPR device fast, in huge arcs, he’s not scanning anything. He’s resetting his GPR.  

Each of the SIM levels puts the Project Managers into a different classroom of the locating slab, each with increasing complexity and difficulty, including an elevator shaft and simulated underground storage tanks.

Every SIM class also spends copious time in the field, often at GPRS SiteMap Pilot Program Partner, The University of Toledo, where they can immediately apply what they learned on the concrete to parking lots, buildings, and various types of ground; locating subsurface pipes, conduit, storage tanks, and more. When in the field, the Project Managers upgrade from their washable markers to construction marking paint, and may use additional imaging tools, but the process is the same: Scan the area, locate the subsurface infrastructure, confirm your findings, and mark it out so that anyone who comes upon it can easily understand what they’re looking at.

“I want other contractors to see our marks and decide to call us because they see the detail and clean lines on what we do,” Evan Soto tells the class.

That’s why there are no decimal points in GPRS locates, only whole numbers so there is no room for interpretation, and why Project Managers only use prescribed markings, for instance using //// instead of XXX to show the location of a subsurface line, and why each type of locate (electrical conduit, water pipe, telecom cable, gas line, sewer pipe, and more) has its own specific color coding, to provide an instant snapshot of every section of the surveyed area.

“The biggest adjustment for me was coming into this thinking I knew more than I did,” said Detroit Area Project Manager Cory Ertle during a recent training session at Silica.

“[As a GPRS Project Coordinator], I knew more than the average PM. I know about the equipment used, our limitations, how to estimate jobs… I learned a tremendous amount in the classroom in four days that surpassed the six months I spent as a Project Coordinator.”

When they’re not in the classroom or in the field with their instructors, the PMs, who are assembled from every region of the U.S., share hotel rooms where they do their homework, get to know each other, and socialize together, because GPRS training is as much about teambuilding as it is about locating, and at GPRS, the team always comes first.

[GPRS] is the kind of company I really looked for, for the last seven years since I got out of the Marine Corps,” Ertle continued. “I feel like I’m part of a family, and that’s hard to replicate… that brotherhood that you experience… Everybody here, they’ve got your six, so to speak. Everybody has your back.”

If you’d like to learn how to join the GPRS Team to Visualize The Built World™, click here.