If there’s one thing people fear most now, it’s touching something used by someone they don’t know that may be carrying deadly germs. Sharing vehicles and assets has become a great way for public entities to control costs and fleet size. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made this difficult for many, as it’s not always easy keeping customers socially distanced in smaller vehicles.
Changes Aren’t Always Bad
Patrick Monaghan, fleet manager for the City of Jamestown, N.Y., says more employees are sharing vehicles now than before the pandemic. For example, before COVID-19, the department would use one truck to bring upwards of six laborers from the Street Maintenance Division and the Parks Department where they needed to be. When COVID hit, they had to reduce the number of workers in a single vehicle considerably. This required them to borrow trucks from other departments to allow these laborers to still get to the jobsite in a safe, clean way with minimal risk.
At this point, the city hasn’t yet developed any new vehicle pools or reduced fleet size due to budget cuts, Monaghan says.
“I’d anticipate as the effects of these budget cuts trickle down, we may see something that happens down the road. But at this point in time, nothing has happened yet.”
The biggest concern about vehicle sharing during the pandemic has been the sheer number of vehicles that come through the Fleet Maintenance Division.
“Every vehicle the city owns or operates comes through our doors. If, for example, an employee at the Police Department tests positive for COVID-19, we need to know right away, because there’s a good chance we have seen that car come through our shop or it will soon come through,” he explains.
This is why cross-department communication is most important. It ensures although the individual departments may be taking precautions to contain the spread, fleet can go above and beyond what’s already being done to maintain safe vehicle sharing procedures.
Monaghan says his customers haven’t hesitated at the idea of sharing vehicles due to the virus. However, that doesn’t stop him and his team from providing packages of disposable wipes for all employees in each vehicle. Also, the department had a part-time cleaning person coming in just to clean offices before COVID-19; that individual has had his hours increase to almost full-time because he goes around at the end of each shift to wipe down major touch points on vehicles as well.
“We’ve been able to do all that at least without breaking the bank, but it will certainly reflect in the remainder of this year’s budget and into next year’s as well,” he clarifies.
When asked if he thinks asset sharing will cease being a practice with the global pandemic now changing the way people think about germs, he says he believes there’s a good chance it will.
“When the pandemic first hit, people seemed to pull away from sharing vehicles more so than they have recently. I believe it will at least give people pause going forward, just because of the potential for germ spreading. Right now, the most important thing you can do is make sure those who have any contact at all with the public are wearing masks; we mandate our employees do so.”
In addition, if staff have had any potential contact with anybody who has tested positive, they must stay home and not come in until they are tested or have quarantined for a set amount of time.
Monaghan says COVID has certainly changed how he’s conducted operations, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For instance, to accommodate social distancing protocols, he ended up staggering shifts. Prior to COVID, he had four technicians who came in at 6 a.m. and worked until 2 p.m., and then another four who came in at 1 p.m. and worked until 9 p.m. In the midst of reconfiguring shifts, he started rotating employees; instead of having all eight come in at once, four would work one day, and then the other four would come in the next day.
As restrictions started to ease, Monaghan made it so four technicians come in at 6 a.m., while the other four come in two hours later. This method has worked out better in many ways, as their customer departments are the most active from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We need that manpower during the day. We’ve decided to stick with what works better and also saves the city money.”
The four mechanics who were working the afternoon shift were getting paid an extra stipend with a night differential, which isn’t the case anymore due to the staggered shifts. They were also able to be more intentional and deliberate with coordinating preventive and predictive maintenance.
“We started working a lot more closely with the customer departments, which improved productivity and uptime. I believe COVID has allowed us to realize we can change some things moving forward permanently. There are some times you start to wonder why we haven’t always done something like this.”
Tony Cademarti, fleet program manager of Motor Vehicle Division Transportation Services for the City of Everett, Wash., says his fleet vehicles are being shared less due to health concerns caused by the pandemic.
For example, before COVID, the Public Works Department normally put two people in a single truck. Now, three- to four-man teams need multiple vehicles to get their jobs done while staying socially distanced.
“We have a lot of replaced equipment we had to retain temporarily to have extra moving ability,” he explains.
It’s quite difficult to keep people six feet apart from each other in smaller vehicles. One example of a “work around” was to have one person drive a 12-passenger van with someone in the back row so they could maintain the amount of space needed between the driver and passenger.
“We did that for several months when needed, but it’s just such a waste to drive something that big for two people.”
Thankfully, Cademarti was able to keep any vehicles ordered before COVID shut everything down. Everything else must be approved on a case-by-case basis due to budget restraints.
“The only department that was really affected by a reduction in their replacement fleet was parks, which, as part of a replacement reduction, turned in two vehicles and got one new one. Unfortunately, parks tend to get the short end of the stick, because fire and police are all funded out of the same general pool fund,” he says.
The fleet department hasn’t created any new vehicle pools, but the overall fleet size has crept up. Some departments are trying to only allow one person per vehicle as much as they can, Cademarti says.
During COVID, he’s worked to create and enhance a 10-year replacement plan, although anything past five years becomes more of a guessing game.
“We try to look and see what replacements will be needed so we can move vehicles around to balance the load and avoid unbalanced waves of replacements. This planning didn’t necessarily happen because of COVID, but it certainly accelerated it a bit.”
The city’s safety division put out guidance for vehicles, and fleet has made sure to follow them, including cleaning shared spaces and wiping down anything that is a central touch point after use. When the pandemic first hit, they’d also requested drivers roll windows down to increase the circulation of fresh air.
The City of Everett used to contract a biowaste cleanup company to decontaminate the back of police cruisers. However, once COVID hit, they refused to come anymore since there wasn’t a specific, approved procedure to clean up a vehicle exposed to the virus. However, they now have found a vendor to perform this service. Regardless, mechanics continue to wear clean gloves and take every precaution possible to keep themselves and vehicles safe for use.
When asked if he thinks asset sharing will cease in the coming years, he says he doesn’t think so.
“What I do think is there will be more standard state or federal protocols created to ensure it remains a safe practice.”
He mentions a different set of “shared vehicles” — public transit — may see a downsizing in the near future as well.
“Everett Transit experienced an approximate 50% loss of its ridership due to COVID. I feel that, due to COVID, the only time people ride the bus is if they absolutely have to get to work or the grocery store, or have no other option. I think what’s going to happen is we will start seeing smaller vehicles eventually for some routes, more like the size of a large shuttle, with far fewer seats and maybe a spot for a wheelchair to space everyone out. They don’t break down as much and they will be put on set routes.”
Gary McLean, fleet manager for the City of Lakeland, Fla., says his department has seen a lot more use of its loaner pool. “We’ve been retaining vehicles we replaced because we had to start separating work crews,” he explains. “We’ve probably got about 30 vehicles that should already have gone to auction, but we’ve got them issued out to departments with work crews that need them now.”
He says once COVID worries die down a bit, he will have the fleet utilization committee reconvene a new study to determine which vehicles are being used enough to justify their fleet presence.
These vehicles are all thoroughly disinfected, and the department keeps a list of everybody who drives them in case they need to conduct contact tracing.
When a vehicle is returned, it’s locked down until there’s a chance to properly clean it. If someone does test positive and has been using multiple vehicles, this can be time consuming.
“For instance, if a line crew in the electric department tests positive, that’s 12 trucks that have been touched. But we’ve got the process down to a science and the customers understand what they’re supposed to do. Some may say it’s overkill, but we’d rather it be that way if it keeps people safe.”
Some customers have balked at the idea of sharing vehicles during a pandemic, but McLean’s team works hard to reassure them every effort is made to keep the vehicle safe. They also hang a sign in each vehicle that states “clean and unused as of (date).”
Will asset sharing cease due to COVID fears? He says he doesn’t think so.
“It’s so expensive to have extra vehicles. Most of the crews are based out of the utilities, and they run off a bottom line. We’re lucky enough to not have to share rides with most of the other departments.”
Overall, the department has to operate in the least expensive way possible because it has to account for the extra costs of sanitization.
“We can tie up somebody for quite a while cleaning a vehicle, and we’ve got to recoup their labor hours. We’re having to dig into our surplus a little bit.”