Angle Points: If We Don't Fix Things Who Will?

A 1.549Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

One of my favorite photographs, one that inevitably evokes a comment from my wife, is that of a group of young couples out for dinner. Every one of them is texting on their smart phones, some, to each other as they sit side by side. Everyone is pressing little buttons and staring at small pixilated screens, trading bits and bytes of data. My second favorite picture is of a surveyor standing in front of some kind of electronic measurement device, pressing little buttons and staring at small pixilated screens communicating with a faraway satellite system, gathering little bits and bytes of data.

Are those real conversations over dinner? Where is the art of interactive verbal communication? Similarly, what is today’s surveyor learning and who is training him/ her? Where is that conversation? Today’s surveyors are metaphorically good at texting but do they really know what they are doing? Sadly and as bitter a pill it is to swallow, most are not properly trained, particularly in the area of boundary determination, arguably the last bastion of land surveying as we profess it exists. Above all else, this is clearly an area we should distinguish ourselves in. Why are we not?

Because these measuring people are not adequately trained in such things as evidence evaluation, accessory corners, monument recovery (if the metal detector doesn’t buzz it’s not there), monument characteristics and pedigree, corner restoration, (what tree, what marks?), locating the wrong things (sprinkler heads–they have numbers stamped in them), water line plugs set on curbs and sidewalks (must be good–something is stamped in them), randomly set geodetic control monuments (accepted as property corners and section corners), metal things (they are after all shiny) and other objects stuck in the ground, none of which have anything to do with boundary determination.

As with the digital diners, someone needs to look up. When one considers the measurement person never had adequate training, a condition aggravated by the fact that the surveyor in "responsible charge" does not have the time or the budget to train the person running around with the fancy equipment, things are not looking very good. And, as fundamental economics does not permit adequate time in training the equipment operator how to survey, what are the consequences? Granted the modern measuring person is proficient at pushing buttons but what does he/ she know about boundary surveying? To exacerbate this problem, in order to remain "competitive," the surveyor in charge of all this lowers his/her rates instead of charging for this expensive new equipment and the obvious efficiencies derived from this equipment. What kind of business model is this and how does one survive?

When survey crews were comprised of multiple members, generally a rod person, an instrument operator and a crew chief, the structure produced a definite chain of command and a defined hierarchy. Historically, surveying education involved advancing through these three vital roles while constantly apprenticing. Now, a novice, supremely skilled at texting and with little or no training is given a fancy piece of equipment and after the salesman teaches him/her how to turn it on and make some measurements, he/she becomes a modern surveyor. As with the digital diners who need to learn how to talk, there has to be some human interaction and someone needs to be teaching these measuring people how to survey. Worse, this economically driven disconnect extends into the higher levels of surveying where many surveyors work alone and owing to the wonders of robotics and fundamental business economics, they do not employ an assistant. Instead, they work alone and train no one. Apprenticeship is dead. It is for this reason that so many surveyors focus on the highly competitive area of construction staking, an area now commoditized. A dozen eggs and a gallon of milk? Given these realities of modern life, how does today’s surveyor learn to conduct boundary surveyors when they have never been trained by anyone? What can we do to address this problem? To paraphrase President Kennedy, "Ask not what your profession can do for you; ask what you can do for your profession?"

At a local level and in response to a number of calls and emails from some members of the local surveying community, I took the initiative to develop a service I refer to as "peer to peer consultation." It is ostensibly modeled after the efforts of Curt Brown when he addressed procedural questions submitted by other land surveyors from across the country, responding to them in the old ACSM articles "The Surveyor and the Law." This service entails assisting other surveyors in resolving professional disputes by acting as a moderator or a mediator. Indeed it is gratifying to assist a young local surveyor by educating them about boundary surveying and the rules of evidence, two skills not taught by a GPS system. I am amazed at how many younger surveyors, particularly ones from large companies, ask me for advice about the basic facets of land surveying. They have an ingrained interest in ethics, quality control, research, legal elements, mapping procedures, liability, and other important issues. These people readily admit they have no one at their own company to talk to as their boss or employer "knows nothing about land surveying," even though many are licensed. Indeed.

In the way of background, the concept of peer review dates back to a treatise called Ethics of the Physician written in the 9th-century by Ishap bin Ali al-Rahawi of al-Raha, Syria. Ali al-Rahawi established a process wherein an attending physician was required to prepare a duplicate set of notes of a patient’s condition throughout their treatment. Upon conclusion of the care, either by rehabilitation or death, the physician’s journal was reviewed by a local medical council of other doctors who would decide if the treatment met the applicable standards of medical care. The notes were also helpful in evaluating the merits of the treatment and, if successful, others could learn something.

The medical profession has perfected peer review through the evaluation of a practitioner’s decisions by others with similar qualifications. By definition, the principal objective of a peer review is to assure that members of a select profession maintain high standards of quality and standards of care while instilling confidence in the profession, both internally and externally. The American Medical Association (AMA) formalizes its process through what is known as "medical peer review," a procedure intended to improve the quality of its members as well as to assure the safety of all patients. According to the AMA:

"Medical peer review is the process by which a professional review body considers whether a practitioner’s clinical privileges or membership in a professional society will be adversely affected by a physician’s competence or professional conduct. The foremost objective of the medical peer review process is the promotion of the highest quality of medical care as well as patient safety. . . "

The objective of a medical peer review committee is to review the medical care rendered in order to determine whether accepted standards have been met. If a peer review committee finds that a physician has departed from accepted standards, it may recommend limiting or terminating the physician’s privileges at an institution. Similarly, itt is not uncommon for land surveyors to find themselves subjected to practice scrutiny. Unlike doctors, their evaluation can be done by one person as opposed to a number of peers. This is an
unhealthy paradigm and is one used by many licensing boards, to the detriment of the profession.

In an expansion of this concept, several years ago, a group of colleagues formed The Land Surveyors Advisory Council on Technical Standards (LSACTS). Our goal was to discuss sundry survey topics and to share our observations with each other. Over time, others approached us and asked for our opinion on other survey issues. Consequentially, we have periodically issued periodic white papers on various survey topics. Our goal, sometimes misunderstood is not to pontificate but instead, is to educate and because there are several of us involved, it is a vetted peer process.

Given the problems with the profession and the constant nibbling away at the land surveyor’s domain by robotics, automation, GPS, and GIS, why is it that so many seasoned land surveyors do not offer their help to others? Does anyone care about the future of the profession?

One important way to integrate peer review in the surveying profession is in the area of complaints and enforcement cases. If a complaint is filed against a land surveyor, instead of issuing a citation decided by one or two people, the surveyor should have his/her actions reviewed by a council of peers. This is a much healthier process and one far more productive. Given the limited qualifications of many modern land surveyors, a peer council comprised of seasoned members of the land surveying community, will serve as an opportunity to share traditional survey procedures and experiences with younger surveyors. As opposed to a punitive process, the peer review becomes an opportunity to refocus the offending surveyor.

If we are going to survive and if we ever expect to be treated like doctors and other professionals, we need to make a wholesale change in how we go about doing our jobs and overseeing our practices. This kind of thinking must begin with each of us and extend to our state associations and licensing boards. The profession must refocus. When a dozen GIS apprentices put us out of work with each passing day, we must accept the fact that that work will never come back. It is gone. And, as more and more people gather the information they need using easy to operate GPS, that, too, is gone; everyone is a mapmaker, an area once exclusive to the land surveying profession. What is your next move?

Michael Pallamary, PS, is the author of several books and numerous articles. He is a frequent lecturer at conferences and seminars and he teaches real property to attorneys and other members of the legal profession. He has been in the surveying profession since 1971.

A 1.549Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE