Taking the lay of the land Surveyors: Hundreds who go about the ancient task of measuring and mapping are meeting this week in Baltimore.

March 05, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Alan Dragoo looks at Mount Rushmore and sees three surveyors and the other guy.

The other guy is Teddy Roosevelt.

Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln each worked in the ancient business of measuring the Earth's distances, angles and topography. So does Dragoo, one of about 1,000 surveyors in Baltimore this week for the annual convention of the American Congress of Surveying and Mapping. The session, which ends today, coincides with the spring conference of the Maryland Society of Surveyors.

(Note to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association: The surveyors were not impressed with the generic map of Baltimore supplied for the back of the conference program.)

"What we do goes back to the days when the Nile would flood and when it receded, they'd call in the rope stretchers to mark off where the farms were," says Dragoo, who works for a Herndon, Va., manufacturer of surveying and mapping equipment.

Today, the field is so sophisticated that a worker by the side of the road communes with satellites to pinpoint locations smaller than a dime. When such equipment isn't being used by the Army to map strategies for bombing Iraq, it's most often telling a housing contractor exactly where to curb and gutter America's suburban sprawl.

Surveyors throw around terms like "flavors of accuracy," in which determining a measurement down to plus or minus a foot is to one person's taste, while plus or minus an inch is desired by another.

They sometimes stick their names on land they've studied, like the one named Hale who is thought to have surveyed Halethorpe. And every now and then, they alert police to a body in some out-of-the-way culvert.

"For almost anything that's being built, you need a surveyor," says Marc S. Cheves, editor of Professional Surveyor magazine. "And we're an economic indicator. We're the first ones hired in good times and the first ones laid off in bad."

The economy is humming, says Cheves, when the classifieds carry a dozen or so ads a day for surveyors. These days, he says, things are going pretty well.

Entry-level jobs for licensed surveyors with an undergraduate degree begin about $30,000 and can quickly rise to $40,000.

A surveyor who works for a manufacturer of specialized equipment -- those things you see on tripods are called "total stations" and make measurements without tape measures -- can make $70,000 or more.

Polytechnic High School has long offered courses in surveying. While the closest university offering a degree in surveying is Penn State, college-level courses are available at Catonsville Community College.

There are marine surveyors, oil field surveyors, police mappers of traffic accidents and crime scenes, and robot-controlled mappers of the solar system such as the Mars Global Surveyor.

And more and more in this male-dominated field, there are women surveyors, like the ones who gathered Monday at the "Forum for Women in Surveying."

"When I started surveying, it was a big deal," says Mary Root, a Virginian whose gender landed her on the cover of Professional Surveyor in 1984. She is the editor of Backsights, a newsletter that preserves the history of the profession.

"They said I'd never get ahead because I was too little to carry the equipment," she says. "I went out to prove them wrong."

Although many surveying locales are more interesting than a newly paved cul-de-sac, it's not an especially romantic calling, and the profession has lately been thinking of ways to lure the computer generation to the work.

Most people wind up surveying because it ran in their family (Root was inspired by her grandfather); others got summer jobs as helpers on construction sites and decided to stay on.

Ray Burke and his three brothers got into it because it's what their daddy did.

"We give talks at high schools, and most [students] aren't interested at all. Except for the lure of the outdoors, it's not real attractive to them," says Burke, a surveyor with an engineering and landscape architectural firm in Silver Spring. "This year I was trying to explain to them how surveying is the field where you can actually put trigonometry to use. And this one girl raises her hand and says: 'Yeah, but if the equipment is so great, why don't you just push the button and let it solve the problem for you?' "

Burke admits that the youngster had sized him up.

And by the way, Teddy Roosevelt isn't the only guy who's not a surveyor.

Neither are the folks you see on the highway taking measurements, driving stakes into the ground and spraying symbols on the asphalt with orange paint.

They're unlicensed technicians.

The surveyors are sitting behind a desk somewhere waiting for them to bring back the information.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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