Continuing to operate through a pandemic teaches you something new every day. Casey Smith, director of the Fleet Operations Department for the City of San Diego, has certainly learned a lot and knows everything his fleet has gone through will only help make it resilient in the event of another emergency. Here, he talks about the various challenges the pandemic has brought with it and how he plans to overcome them.
Parsing Out COVID Pros and Cons
Naturally, Smith has faced one of the biggest challenges this year is keeping his workforce safe from COVID-19. Protecting staff in the workplace with social distancing, masks, and the infectious disease control plan he's helped create and implement has been an important task, especially since you can't control what happens outside of work.
He's participated in emergency management for the city even before COVID-19 hit and was called on to help set up the San Diego Convention Center as a large homeless shelter back in March. As logistics chief, he learned a lot through that process.
"We had epidemiologists and public health nurses working alongside us to execute programs to keep our unsheltered population safe. One of those programs was creating an infectious disease control plan. I brought it over to Fleet Operations, and we were the first city department to roll out the plan for our employees. Being an essential department supporting the police department, fire vehicles, and packers for trash collection, we need bodies in the workplace to get that work out the door every day."
Besides keeping staff healthy, ensuring he has enough people to turn wrenches to keep the fleet moving is vital. This, coupled with maintaining the budget, has undoubtedly been stressful.
"A huge chunk of San Diego's revenue comes from tourism, and obviously that's been drastically reduced due to the pandemic. We're all concerned about what those impacts are going to be as we move forward, especially when it comes to our vehicle replacement plan."
When you're approaching the city council requesting millions of dollars for replacements, you need to be able to convey why replacing drives down costs in the long run. As a new city administration is being sworn in, he plans to meet with council members to ensure the city's fleet will still have the needed funding.
Even though COVID has wreaked havoc on many operations, it's also helped people overhaul how they run their fleets. Smith says the infectious disease control program they've implemented will be used not just for COVID-19, but also colds, flus and other viruses that impact the workforce.
"Our continuity of operations plan will come in handy for any kind of disaster we face in the future. Putting it on paper is different than actually having to put the plan in action. COVID forced us to do that."
Cultivating a Greener Fleet
The ever-changing nature of technology, especially in electric vehicles, is a topic that interests Smith deeply.
Lately, he's been excited about some of the EV pickup trucks that have been announced and are on the horizon, as well as the cost savings the city could potentially see from them.
"We have an aggressive Climate Action Plan. We've nearly 216 hybrids, 115 EVs, 84 compressed natural gas packers, and some propane vehicles as well. That's not counting what we have on order the next year. Also, as part of our vehicle replacement plan over the next five years, we are doing what we can to procure more zero-emission or significantly reduced emission vehicles."
Infrastructure for EV vehicles has been an operational challenge he's facing. The city's yards are older, and the electrical infrastructure is a challenge in itself on a day-to-day basis; it's an even more significant challenge when trying to add in charging stations. Their larger city yard sits on top of an old landfill. Therefore, doing any trenching to run a cable is problematic because of the shifting soils, landfill cap issues, and methane collection.
"Identifying the funding for that and helping city decision-makers understand that as we roll out EVs, you can't just go out and buy the vehicle has been tough. There's a huge infrastructure that supports it that we also have to be concerned about."
Smith is working with the Sustainability Department to actively pursue grants and collaborate with consultants to determine what costs will look like. The department is piloting other technology like EVR charging stations, which are portable and have a solar panel on top.
Providing Ample Space
Another current project Smith is working on is securing funding for a new fire repair facility. The city has a lease on a site right now and is in the design process. The facility was supposed to be in construction by now, but budget restraints caused by COVID-19 have required a temporary pause.
"Currently, we have one facility where we're maintaining our packer and heavy fire fleet. It comprises 149 refuse collection vehicles and 123 heavy duty fire apparatuses, with three shifts a day running 24 hours. We're trying to get this new facility up and running because we want to remedy operational inefficiencies caused by operating two fleets in the same facility that are so different from each other."
Backing Up Decisions with Data
The department uses the FleetFocus program, and the city recently created a program coordinator IT position that will help it tap into more of its capabilities.
"We can capture so much data, which helps support us when we go to council and say, 'we need these vehicles, and this is why.' When we're making changes from one type of vehicle to another, we can go back into the program, look at how much repair or downtime is associated with those brands and models versus others, and justify why we want a more expensive model. It'll save us money over time."
Understanding Needs, Based on Experience
Smith spent 18 years with the Parks and Recreation Department before leading the City of San Diego Fleet Operations Department. He initially stepped in on an interim basis, but he fell in love with fleet once he got a taste. After six months, Smith's temporary assignment became permanent.
"I've got a pretty good feel for what the needs are out in the field. I've tried to take what I learned in my previous position and relay an understanding of how important our role is in supporting our customers' goals."