Point of Beginning

Rules of Surveying

May 1, 2014

One of my favorite scenes in the movie “The Untouchables” takes place on the bridge where Sean Connery confronts Kevin Costner. They have a well written dialogue about police work and Connery tells him “the first rule of law enforcement – At the end of your shift go home.” For party chiefs, I believe there are also some general rules. One important one is “At the end of the day, bring your equipment home.”

While raising our children, a technique I employed was telling true stories to warn them how things can go wrong. I think it works well with employees too. My old Missouri boss told me lots of stories of his past employees which were funny, but may have also been his way of passing on wisdom to save his employee grief, that employee being me. He told of the man who had to have time off for the funerals of is eight grandmothers. He shared about the contractor who called him and joked about where he saw the company truck assuming my boss was spending his afternoon in the beer garden. That whole crew was fired immediately.

One of his teaching stories involved his crew assigned to urban renewal work. The survey party had been doing stakeout work all summer around the town center for curbs, sidewalks, and utilities. At dusk, the police called my boss and said they found a transit set up at the project and nobody seemed to be around. He thanked the officer and drove over and picked up the instrument and legs and put them in his truck. In the morning, the crew came in and drove off to work. A half hour later, heads hanging, they dragged back into the office to a waiting employer to tell the tale of how they lost the instrument. He listened to their apologies and then gave them the instrument and told them to never do it again. I was impressed with how he handled the situation. I have passed on this story to many people. It happens with tapes, metal detectors, shovels and other tools – they are left behind.

I would think that a typical survey vehicle carries between $15,000-60,000 worth of equipment and supplies. That is a substantial investment for employers to hand over to a party chief. I remember reading frightening stories of survey crews in Florida years ago being robbed while they were actively working.

During a typical work day, crews are trying to accomplish survey tasks and may not be concentrating on protecting equipment or considering that someone may be watching and targeting the tools. I met a carpenter who did some layout by himself with a transit. While “shooting the breeze” with a site superintendent he related a story of how he was in a wide open field staking by himself. He had one of those makeshift drafting boards carpenters construct using a sheet of plywood and was going over the plans. When he turned back around the instrument was gone. He said that someone had to cross 300 feet of open cleared ground and come within 50 feet of where he was standing to lift the equipment when all he had to do was turn around. The thief probably should have gone out for the Olympics in track. His story was a free lesson for me but an expensive one for the carpenter.

This same man told me other stories of working in the city and a truck parked at the curb, 10 feet from a deep basement dig. It was broken into and cleaned out. Men were working just below grade and out of view while the plumbers’ tools disappeared and the locked truck was emptied. I still think about that story when I am working in potentially risky neighborhoods. I believe these stories have saved me from loss.

I was once questioned by another surveyor why I did not set Mag nails in the pavement and instead set magnetic nails behind the curb. Not wanting to challenge him I just said that was how I liked to work. Since I was subcontracted to his boss I did not discuss it more and he let it go. I could tell he thought I was off the mark, while what I was really thinking is ‘you use your bosses equipment, not your own. Setting up in the road involve risks to man and machine.

Twenty years ago, I passed a survey crew with a transit person set up in the middle of a narrow high traffic two lane highway and only six cones. I felt like stopping and yelling at them. They risked not only the equipment, but the workers.

Using a robot, I like to have my instrument where people will be less likely to strike it. That sounds dumb but I find the farther a survey instrument is from vehicles, the less likely it is to be struck by vehicles. If my magnetic nail is behind a concrete curb with an eight-inch face, then for a car to strike it, the vehicle must first jump the curb. If the robot is already on the pavement, then it is in harm’s way all the time. Yes at times I do set up the instrument in hazardous places, but I do try to limit the chances I take.

I know a very good surveyor who had three incidents of broken instruments all of which happened on pavement. He is careful almost all of the time and a very responsible diligent person. While working as a transit person one instrument was set up on a nail in front of the survey truck to block the wind and they were sitting in the truck warming up. He and his party chief watched as a gust blew the instrument over and the Ranger lens shattered when it hit the pavement. Had it been planted in the ground, it probably would not have happened.

A second time, the same person was running a transit for me and instead of standing by the instrument when the office manager came on site to talk with me, walked over to stand with us.  I looked back to where he should have been and the instrument was laying down on the pavement, freshly run over. I had placed more than a dozen cones as we were in a busy parking lot. Since the office manager who would have to resolve our instrument problem was there when it happened, I had no need to report anything. I felt glad I did not have to go to the owner and “explain” what happened. Years later, when having a similar problem with another employee walking away from an instrument in a parking lot, I asked the man who would later turn out to be a better tree trimmer than surveyor, “Would you leave your chain saw in a parking lot as you leave my level?” Never again did he abandon equipment.

Some other ways of looking at walking a distance away from expensive instruments would be to ask where would you leave a child in a parked stroller? How many cones would you place if it was on a shoulder to protect it? Of course only a man would think of such an example since no amount of protection would be enough, but you could replace the baby with an expensive camera, your wallet, a pair of glasses, or your checkbook. I believe we all grow accustomed to our instruments and vehicles and probably to some extent have a tendency to become a bit careless.

In order to work on the Pennsylvania turnpike surveyors are supposed to set up many cones, and have a flagman. Often, I need to locate the pavement to begin to figure out where the right of way lines exist and the setup of protections would be more than the time I would occupy the area near the highway. A turnpike filed supervisor explained to me how at any given time of the day, there are drunk people on the turnpike and the risk far greater than one might think.

 We probably all have stories like these. If we continue to share them with those we teach, then our own equipment and our employers everywhere may be better protected. Hopefully, few will ever have to return home to explain what happened. In writing this, I am convicted that I too have grown casual and relaxed when carrying around a $35,000 instrument and can feel my own finger pointing back at me and warning “be careful.”