When a large wildfire broke out in the Fallbrook area of San Diego County, Calif., in December of 2017, fire trucks from agencies across the state were deployed to fight it. With all hands on deck, it was important that every unit stay in service to keep the fire at bay. But what would happen if a fire apparatus failed and couldn’t continue to fight the fire? The county didn’t have to find out. On standby was the County of San Diego mobile maintenance team, which was able to make repairs on the fire line as needed throughout the incident. By taking tools and technicians to the site rather than bringing trucks into a shop, fire trucks were able to stay in service through the entirety of the incident, giving them the edge over the fire.
Mobile maintenance isn’t just for emergencies – it’s helping fleets stay on top of maintenance and repairs, reduce vehicle downtime, improve technician productivity, and more. To show how fleets can benefit from mobile maintenance, three fleets share their stories and best practices for other fleets that want to follow suit.
County of San Diego, Calif.
The County of San Diego, Calif., has been using in-house mobile maintenance for the last 12 years. With five fully outfitted service trucks staffed by ASE Master Certified Fleet Technicians and Certified Fire Mechanics, mobile units typically service a wide variety of vehicles and equipment, ranging from road construction equipment to park maintenance equipment, in addition to the aforementioned fire trucks, but can service any of the county’s 4,500 vehicles and equipment if needed.
“We identified the need for field maintenance originally to maintain fire apparatus at rural fire stations so we could reduce the downtime we were experiencing and to increase unit availability at the stations in the back country,” said John Manring, chief departmental operations fleet. “After its inception, it didn’t take long for us to see the advantages to many other departments who have locations in rural settings.”
The program continues to grow, with two new service trucks on order and plans to add another Master Fire Technician to the team very soon.
Manring says the fleet has seen a number of benefits as a result of having a mobile maintenance program. “Having the ability to service units in the field drastically reduces unit downtime for our customers and keeps their staff doing their jobs and not transporting units to the shops. It also allows our mobile maintenance technicians to maintain multiple units at one location, which increases their productive hours on the job,” he said.
“We have seen increases in uptime due to our ability to service units at the work locations. On breakdowns we are able to respond quickly and typically do repairs on site, whereas before the unit would need to be towed to a shop and then picked up after the repair, which would cost additional days out of service.”
Newberry County, S.C.
Newberry County, S.C., contracts with Vector Fleet Management to perform maintenance on county vehicles, which has included mobile maintenance for fire and rescue vehicles since 2009.
At Newberry County, a mobile maintenance truck with a dedicated technician follows a monthly schedule that coincides with the station number: Station 1 trucks receive an annual PM in January, Station 2 In February, and so on. Then, six months later, trucks are serviced again, or more often if they meet mileage criteria. Most of the 11 fire stations the mobile unit visits have a collocated rescue station, so rescue vehicles follow the same schedule. In total, the mobile unit services 44 rescue vehicles and 82 fire trucks.
Gregory Giles, Vector Fleet’s contracted shop manager for Newberry County, said having a mobile unit has improved the fleet’s performance. “With a dedicated truck, we can perform all service and most repairs at the station, which minimizes downtime on the unit being serviced,” he said. “The KPI that mobile maintenance has helped the most is our tech’s indirect time. Prior to aligning the PM schedule with the station number, the tech was driving all over the county to service a vehicle, which wasn’t efficiently captured.”
City of San Jose, Calif.
The City of San Jose, Calif., operates four service trucks that support three forms of mobile maintenance. The first, which dates back more than 15 years, is a traditional program that performs onsite servicing for off-road equipment and stationary equipment, totaling 175 assets. The second, in place for eight years, is a full-service pick-up and delivery model for light duty vehicles. Services and repairs on these 100 vehicles are performed during off-peak hours to minimize vehicle downtime for the end user. The third program provides strategic support to the Fire Department, sending out a mechanic during major incidents or for after-hours needs.
David Mesa, interim fleet manager, said these programs have reduced overall costs due to higher preventive maintenance compliance and greater fleet availability, which allows city departments to focus on their core job responsibilities.
“PM compliance has gone up across all mobile services platforms, with an average of 90% compliance year to date,” Mesa said. “We have also seen a higher ROI for the vehicles assigned to the full-service platform when sold at auction, as the annual maintenance and operations for these vehicles is considerably lower than comparable vehicles assigned to other departments within the city.”
The City of San Jose is now in the process of adding a new mobile platform to assist with fueling and inspecting assets assigned to the city’s water treatment plant.
Mobile Maintenance Best Practices
With years of mobile maintenance experience under their belts, Manring, Giles, and Mesa shared their best practices and lessons learned.
Tip #1: Match the Program to the Need
When starting up a mobile maintenance program, Manring suggests asking fleet customers about their needs, then tailoring the mobile program to them. San Diego County employs Business Process Reengineering (BPR), which Manring said can be helpful when starting a new program. “I suggest conducting a BPR that involves the end users. Then, fit the mobile program to what is identified in the BPR as the needs of the organization as a whole,” he said. “Know what your needs are and stay focused on those needs.”
Tip #2: Make Strategic Inventory Decisions
One of the benefits of mobile maintenance programs is to make fewer trips and drive fewer miles, so it’s important to make sure mobile technicians aren’t making unnecessary trips to get parts. Manring said a strategic approach to which parts are stocked on the truck can avoid this problem. “Carrying inventory of normally used parts that match the vehicle and equipment allows for less trips to the parts store or warehouse,” he said.
Mesa said making sure all parts are available and in stock prior to heading out for field work can also prevent unwanted downtime of critical equipment like emergency generators. “There will be the unforeseen outliers where additional parts may be required, but having ‘PM Parts Kits’ can help to mitigate these issues,” he said.
Tip #3: Prepare for Increased Demand
As fleet customers begin to see the benefits of mobile maintenance, Manring said demand for the program will increase. “Demand from our clients continues to increase as departments are recognizing the benefits of our program,” he said. “Every organization should offer this benefit to their clients/departments, even if you start small and grow as the needs grow.”
Tip #4: Get Advice on Service Truck Design
Truck design should also be approached thoughtfully. Mesa suggests soliciting input from technicians to ensure service vehicles are properly equipped. “Having a truck that is outfitted correctly will maximize efficiency for your team when they are working in the field and reduce unneeded trips back to the shop,” he said.
Manring also suggests reaching out to other agencies to learn what has and hasn’t worked for them. “This will save some growing pains,” he said.
Tip #5: Take Advantage of Technology
Another key component of equipping a truck is making sure it can support the necessary technology technicians need to do their jobs. Manring said providing technicians with laptops loaded with manufacturers’ diagnostic software has been proven to be invaluable for his techs. Manring also suggests providing mobile hot spots so technicians can stay connected to the Internet even in rural areas.
Mesa said telematics and GPS tracking have aided mobile maintenance, too. “This allows fleet management departments to remotely monitor equipment or vehicles they previously had no access to unless they were physically onsite with the asset,” he said. “Using this technology allows you to detect a fault in a piece of equipment or receive a notification when it has eclipsed a PM threshold.”
Tip #6: Pick an Independent Technician to Man the Truck
Another key to having a successful mobile maintenance unit is hiring a technician who is a self-starter. While supervision will always be necessary, Giles said if a mobile technician frequently requires a supervisor to come on site or regularly calls in with questions about what to do or how to proceed, that technician isn’t a good candidate for mobile service. “If a technician requires even normal supervision, they are probably the wrong person to assign to mobile maintenance,” he said.
Mesa agrees the technician behind the wheel is an important choice. “You must have highly motivated individuals who can thrive in a remote work environment, are knowledgeable, and are able to think outside of the box,” he said.
Tip #7: Regularly Inspect Mobile Units
Once mobile units are up and running, Giles said fleets should perform regular inspections that include washing the vehicle. “Pride of ownership can sometimes get slack, and the truck can become a magnet for loose tools, empty soda cans, and such,” he said. “By having a regular schedule to look at the truck with the tech, you can eliminate most problems.”
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