Fuel Management

How Fleets Manage Fuel During Emergencies

November 2017, Government Fleet - Feature

by Tariq Kamal - Also by this author

In Lakeland, Fla., east of Tampa, an agreement with a local fuel vendor ensures the city’s equipment, including this split gasoline/diesel tanker, get first priority during an emergency.Photo courtesy of City of Lakeland
In Lakeland, Fla., east of Tampa, an agreement with a local fuel vendor ensures the city’s equipment, including this split gasoline/diesel tanker, get first priority during an emergency.Photo courtesy of City of Lakeland

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season will go down as one of history’s most devastating. Led by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, a series of storms had caused the deaths of 357 people and total estimated damages of at least $200 billion by mid-­October; the season continues through Nov. 30.

When a natural disaster occurs, public sector fleets are pressed into action. Emergency and service vehicles help maintain order, transport casualties, and clear roads during and after emergencies. But they all need full tanks and regular replenishment, which is no small task when supplies are low and demand is high.

Government Fleet reached out to public sector fleet managers who have prevailed through severe weather events to learn how their emergency response plans held up and get advice for those tasked with keeping the metal moving while conditions around them deteriorate.

At a Glance

To make sure vehicles have fuel during emergencies, fleet managers:

  • Make fuel requisition a priority before an event
  • Ensure suppliers make the fleet its No. 1 priority
    during severe weather
  • Ensure fuel tanks never run low and are topped off often.

Strong Winds and Heavy Rain

Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc and destruction as it moved through the West Indies and Caribbean in the first few days of September. In the path of the storm and amidst warnings of a statewide disaster, Floridians scrambled to prepare. States of emergency were declared and evacuation orders issued. In Miami-­Dade County, Fleet Management Division Director Alex Alfonso prepared for the worst. Knowing fuel supply lines had been crippled when Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast weeks earlier, he made requisition a priority.

Having predicted that the disruption spurred by Harvey would be compounded by closed ports on Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts and tanker drivers fleeing northward, “We were aggressive,” Alfonso said. “We provided communication to our fuel vendor [that] they could give to their supplier to increase our ration. We knew we would need 40,000 gallons per day.”

In Lakeland, Fla., east of Tampa, Gary McLean, CPFP, was feeling confident. The last time the fleet manager bid fuel vendors, he chose a Lakeland-based company. He didn’t pick the company because it was local, nor because it offered the lowest price. In fact, the city pays a 5-cent-per-gallon premium above the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS)’s rack rate in exchange for a number of considerations, including same-day delivery and use of the vendor’s facility as a secondary fueling station.

Miami-Dade County’s severe weather-response plan covers the refueling of city-owned vehicles and publicly and privately owned generators. In this photo, two heavy equipment
technicians fuel a tanker at the county’s bulk site. Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade County
Miami-Dade County’s severe weather-response plan covers the refueling of city-owned vehicles and publicly and privately owned generators. In this photo, two heavy equipmenttechnicians fuel a tanker at the county’s bulk site. Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade County

Most importantly, during a severe weather event, the company guarantees the Lakeland fleet will always be its No. 1 priority. Other vendors promised strict adherence to the OPIS rate, but McLean was unswayed.
“That would have been ideal if I was running a business,” he said. “We’re in the business of keeping our citizens safe and sound.”

Alfonso can relate: His division’s responsibilities include emergency fueling of generators at county facilities and, during Irma, at gas stations and grocery stores, where they have been required since shortly after South Florida was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“We don’t want to incite panic. We want people to have access to food so they can self-sustain and allow county government to address other priorities,” Alfonso said.

Noting that Lakeland owns and maintains its own utilities infrastructure, McLean described his operation as adopting a “paramilitary-style” posture for emergency response. The city’s fuel strategy held up throughout the hurricane and the recovery that followed, he said, and vehicles and generators continued running despite the many threats to their supply lines. 

Hurricane Report: City of Lakeland

The City of Lakeland, Fla., relied on an ironclad emergency-response plan and the support of its fuel vendor to keep vehicles and generators running during and after Hurricane Irma. But Fleet Manager Gary McLean, CPFP, encountered an unexpected issue: The small generators placed at key intersections to power traffic lights couldn’t be fueled and refueled quickly enough to provide continuous power.

To solve the problem, McLean mobilized two pickups equipped with 100-gallon slip tanks. McLean had inherited the trucks, which were destined for the scrapyard before being pressed into service. Having been properly maintained (if rarely operated), the trucks performed admirably and earned a new commission.

“We’re going to buy new tanks, put new pumps in them, and keep them in the equipment shed,” McLean said. “From now on, they will be included in our emergency operations plan.”

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Hurricane Report: Miami-Dade County

As a former police officer and police fleet manager, Alex Alfonso often falls back on his training and experience in law enforcement when faced with an emergency. In his current position as fleet management division director for Miami-Dade County, Fla., he is responsible for fueling city-owned vehicles and a network of publicly and privately owned generators through severe weather events.

But Alfonso said credit for the county’s successful response belongs to his 300-person staff. With an indomitable spirit of teamwork, staff members executed the division’s plan and kept the tanks full.

“Not one of them gave me any issue. Not one said, ‘I’m not coming in,’ ” Alfonso said. From clerical staff to drivers and technicians, county employees kept the operation up and running, supported first responders, and cleared roads. “It’s less about me and more about the staff. They are unsung heroes who should be commended for what they did,” he said.

Fueling in a Winter Wonderland

By the time a winter storm rolls into Hartford, Conn., Mark Fontaine’s plan to keep police, fire, and snow-removal vehicles fueled up and ready to go is already well underway. As the assistant superintendent for Hartford’s Department of Public Works (DPW), Fontaine supervises a carefully laid maze of fuel tanks, generators, and tankers, and he maintains a strong working relationship with his supplier.

“We think long-term and in the moment,” Fontaine said. “Here in the yard, my main concern is police and fire support.” The DPW’s main facility boasts two 15,000-gallon fuel tanks — one each for gasoline and diesel — which can draw power from a massive on-site generator if the grid goes dark. “I always try to keep the tanks no less than 40% full. If I know something is coming our way, I top them both off,” he said.

The entire DPW campus can run on generator power for up to three days. Three of the city’s fire stations have diesel tanks of their own, also backed by emergency generators, as well as 2,500-gallon gas and diesel tanks strategically located at a city park. Fontaine’s fleet includes two 2,000-gallon tankers — used primarily to carry brine used to treat city streets 24 to 36 hours before a snowstorm — as well as a 650-gallon water tanker.

All three tankers can carry gasoline or diesel if circumstances demand. This adaptability is true to form for Hartford, where city-owned service vehicles are expected to serve multiple roles.

“Even if it gets gnarly, you can always figure your way out of it,” Fontaine said. “My biggest concern would be a catastrophic storm that makes it impossible to get fuel from our vendor. We haven’t experienced that yet.”

Supply and Demand

Hurricane Harvey struck at the heart of the U.S. fuel supply, shuttering refineries and ports, disrupting supply lines, and driving increases in per-gallon prices at the local and national levels.

Demand for gasoline had already begun to spike when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 25. As Gulf Coast drilling operations and refineries announced halts in production in the week leading up to the storm, a mild panic ensued. Consumers in the affected areas lined up at their local gas stations despite pleas from officials to stay home. There were widespread shortages and scattered reports of price-gouging.

Between Aug. 25 and Aug. 29, Harvey caused widespread flooding that would be blamed for 77 deaths.

By Friday, Sept. 1, more than 20% of the nation’s total oil-refining infrastructure was non-operational, and it showed: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, prices for gasoline and diesel began to climb, quickly, reaching $2.69 and $2.73 per gallon, respectively, on Sept. 4. Those figures reflected year-over-year increases of 48 cents for gasoline and 34 cents for diesel — and that was just the national average. The hikes disproportionately affected storm-afflicted states as well as states throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic regions, which rely more heavily on Gulf Coast production than other parts of the country.

As refineries, ports, and shipping channels reopened, fuel prices began to normalize. The average price of a gallon of gasoline fell 7 cents to $2.62 in the two weeks leading up to Sept. 24; the cost of diesel fell 2 cents to $2.71 in the same period. By mid-­October, production and supply lines were largely restored. Gas prices had stabilized to $2.50 per gallon, but the price of diesel remained high at $2.78 per gallon.

On September 4, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recorded a 28-cent average nationwide hike to gasoline prices from the previous week. The Lower Atlantic region saw the biggest increase that week, rising by 41 cents per gallon. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
On September 4, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recorded a 28-cent average nationwide hike to gasoline prices from the previous week. The Lower Atlantic region saw the biggest increase that week, rising by 41 cents per gallon. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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