Crisis management is an integral part of a fleet manager's responsibilities. This sentiment rings true for former fleet manager, Gary Lykins, who worked as a vehicle and equipment repair technician with the North Carolina Forest Service where he helped manage and maintain a regional fleet of wildland fire fighting equipment.
No one knows when a forest fire will break out, but atmospheric conditions as well as the experience of the dedicated forest rangers who meticulously track indicators such as wind speed, relative humidity, and temperatures can be used as an initial warning when conditions are at their peak for potential wildfires.
With a strong focus on effective fleet management practices and a team of skilled mechanics, the North Carolina Forest Service Wildland Firefighter Bulldozer Strike Team ensured optimal preparedness for each demanding fire season. Once a year each ranger station will host mechanics from another ranger stations to inspect the equipment.
“The inspections are not done in a punitive way, rather a community of mechanics coming together to bring about the best outcome for the brave women and men who will be using this equipment in treacherous fire conditions,” Lykins said. “The team's dedicated mechanics diligently oversee the maintenance and upkeep of the bulldozers and fire-fighting vehicles, conducting thorough inspections, implementing preventive maintenance measures, and swiftly addressing any necessary repairs.”
Fleet management plays a pivotal role in coordinating routine servicing, meticulously tracking inventory of spare parts, and efficiently managing emergency repairs to minimize a potential failure while in the act of fighting a forest fire. Through the seamless integration of fleet management and skilled mechanics, the team maximized their capacity to rapidly deploy fully operational equipment, respond with agility to fire incidents, and effectively safeguard vast forested areas.
According to Lykins, fleets should have the following in place for emergencies:
- Develop an emergency preparedness plan with clear protocols and procedures.
- Establish reliable communication systems for seamless coordination during emergencies.
- Maintain an updated list of emergency contacts for quick communication with relevant parties.
- Equip vehicles with safety equipment such as first aid kits and fire extinguishers.
- Provide regular training on emergency protocols and incident reporting mechanisms.
- Identify mission-critical assets well ahead of time and implement strict vehicle maintenance schedules. When possible conduct pre-threat inspections to minimize breakdowns during emergencies.
- Stage assets where the need is likely to occur. For instance, if you are expecting floods it may be advantageous to place key assets on either side of the river to support emergency crews.
- Regularly review and update the emergency preparedness plan to ensure its effectiveness. To every degree possible familiarize yourself with larger agency protocols. Whether you are a large city or a small college campus it helps to know the how, what, and why agencies like FEMA or your state agency will be doing during that time.
What Not to Overlook When a Crisis is About to Hit
One aspect that is often overlooked in a crisis involving fleet management, Lykins noted, is worker safety and well-being. When faced with a crisis, such as natural disasters or emergencies, the immediate focus may be on addressing the situation at hand, potentially causing worker safety considerations to take a backseat.
“Oftentimes, in my experience, it is the workers themselves that need to be told to stop and rest or take a break,” Lykins said. “Keep in mind your people are stakeholders in this crisis and most feel a deep sense of responsibility during a crisis that may cause them to overextend themselves.”
However, prioritizing the people on the ground is crucial for overall effectiveness and success during a crisis. Supervisors play a critical role in making sure everyone on the staff is getting the support they need and is taking care of themselves.
When it comes to mistakes fleets may make during an emergency, Lykins points to a power struggle.
While working in Antarctica for the National Science Foundation, Lykins was shop foreman for a group of seven mechanics, a welder, and a machinist. Managing assets in one of the world’s most isolated environments made the need for a command, structure, and radio protocol a fundamental necessity. All asset and personnel movements on the ice started with a radio transmission to dispatch and ended with a radio transmission to dispatch.
“I’d say, get a clear sense of command structure and be as flexible as possible. Establish regulations that define communication requirements during emergencies and send everything through a command center,” Lykins said. “Information such as vehicles that have become disabled, machines that are being deployed to a certain space, and where your employees are. This all needs to go through a command. I’m always so impressed at how good dispatchers are at keeping a mental log in their head that chronicles all of the day's radio traffic."
Lykins added that the dispatcher at command can often recall a little transmission from hours ago about where an asset has been staged that can make a real difference to the coordinator.
Tools that Fleets Should Have On Hand for Emergencies
“Experience is that thing you get right after you really really need it or experience is the worst kind of teacher, it gives you the test first then the information later,” Lykins said. “While it's impossible to know exactly what kind of tools will be needed in a crisis I will always place a pretty safe bet on experience.”
Some of the most senior people can be a helpful voice in having the right tools, Lykins explained, adding that it’s often easy for those with lesser experience to over-prepare for things that have a low likelihood of occurrence.
“Likely the quiet person that is dragging some old tools out of a storage area marked ‘emergency stuff’ is on the right track,” he said.
However, despite the need to be prepared, and knowing how to handle being in the middle of an emergency situation, there is always the aftermath of the situation. And as Lykins puts it, “It’s never really over for fleet.”
He goes on to explain that the crisis and impending doom will certainly come to an end but that is usually the beginning for fleet.
“Now we have to really fix all the things we patched together during the crisis and manage all of the bumps and bruises the equipment sustained during the emergency,” he noted. “Once we had a small crew of three technicians that worked a marathon 55-hour shift during a “100-year” snow event. The departments that relied on this stellar crew were happy to give accolades for the effort it took to keep the snow plows and emergency vehicles running … while they were dropping off stacks of work orders for the needed repairs incurred during the crisis.”
But Lykins also has a friendly reminder during these times: “Don't lose your sense of humor. It will be many weeks before the shop starts looking normal again.”
As regular operations resume it will be natural for customers to assume everything is business as usual for the fleet. It’s important to be patient and let them know that you care about their situation.
On the flip side, fleets have to look at the future and continue to plan ahead.
“By their nature, new technologies have not stood the test of time,” Lykins said. “We just don't have the institutional knowledge we have on the older stuff. Obviously electric drive automobiles come to mind but many diesel systems are plagued with the same problems. We just don’t have enough history to do a good job at predicting what will happen in some of the most extreme situations.”
Bob Stanton, a retired government fleet director and current industry consultant, believes the transition to EV's may present difficulties unless an auxiliary charging source is engaged and is comparable to the needs. He sees electric refuse trucks as a good example as they require a large amount of power at frequent intervals. According to Stanton, the collection of storm debris will heavily tax solid waste resources requiring them to operate 10 - 14 hour days immediately following a storm. Then there’s the fact that fleets are heavily dependent on data.
“My counsel is not to allow the requirements of your data collection system to take precedence over providing support to your departments or to outside agencies that show up to assist,” Stanton said. “Take care of your citizens first, worry about the data later."
Stanton also warns that in an emergency, sometimes safety protocols take a back seat.
“Don't let that happen,” he stated. “Try to assure your staff is trained in CPR, first aid and that PPE is very readily available to everyone. An injured staff member won't help your recovery efforts; make sure they know you care and what you expect of them to protect themselves and each other.”
Know What’s Ahead and Plan Accordingly
As a former Florida fleet manager, Stanton has had to deal with one the most powerful forces of nature: hurricanes. Every year since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit, all or most public sector entities participate in a statewide hurricane exercise where role-playing exercises are used to simulate real-world situations that may occur. In 2004, Polk County, Florida, where Stanton worked as fleet manager, experienced three direct hit hurricanes within the space of eight weeks.
“We came to understand that the real thing is truly the best experience,” he noted.
While an emergency plan will vary by geography, in Florida, most fuel comes to the state by barge across the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to Florida. When a hurricane is destined for any Gulf location (e.g. Houston, New Orleans, Panama City, Tampa or points in between) the Port of Tampa closes.
Stocking up on fuel, both in storage tanks, fuel trucks, and assuring every vehicle has been topped off prior to the closing of the Port is critical. As Stanton points out, Florida learned the hard way that when electricity goes away, so too go all the fuel stations.
“We learned that having portable standby generators to operate our fuel sites was critical,” Stanton explained. “Most Florida fuel stations now have aux power. We learned that having copious amounts of spare tires was very important.”
Response and recovery vehicles traverse storm damage debris regularly resulting in punctures. The fleet dispatched every service truck in the inventory to the homes of technicians to disperse resources into the widest territory possible and stocked them all with tires of many sizes and a chain saw to facilitate response.
After 2004, the fuel contract was reconstructed to assure the fleet did business with local suppliers that had their own convenience store locations and our contract included a provision that the fuel trucks would be allowed to scavenge convenience store storage tanks if fuel went completely off the grid.
“It almost came to that in 2004,” Stanton recalled. “Nearing the end of those eight weeks, I received a call from FEMA asking for fuel!”
The fleet learned that nothing was more important than fuel access in a crisis. As Stanton pointed out, if the power is out, emergency calls cannot go unanswered. Therefore, as fleets transition to EVs, he recommends considering aux power to support the charging network.
Further, Stanton’s fleet implemented a hierarchy for fuel access. Emergency response departments first, Public Works and Water were second, and ancillary departments (Personnel, IT, Codes etc.) third. Immediately after the storm passed, only the first tier in the hierarchy was allowed to get fuel from our pumps and each tier was added as the need arose.
Looking at Changes for Safer Fleet Operations
“Often, governments don't realize that fleet is an ‘essential service’ and must be allowed to function during the emergency,” Stanton stated. “Governments will typically restrict some departments from returning to work; there should be no debate about fleet and fleet's necessity to work and work overtime if necessary.”
Stanton recommends designating fleets as essential in order to provide support to Emergency Services on a constant basis; governments could codify this designation in an ordinance if necessary.
“The most important tool for fleet in an emergency is to allow fleets to engage whatever emergency protocols are in place at procurement that streamline purchasing of supplies and equipment,” he explained.
The morning after the fleet’s first 2004 hurricane, the county manager asked Stanton what they needed. Stanton’s reply? Six Lightning Loader trucks, one Fuel Tanker truck, and seven portable standby generators. Stanton was given blanket authority to buy these assets (roughly $1 million), which they had on hand within seven days.
“Cutting the red tape at all procurement levels until the emergency needs have passed is the best tool for fleets assuring of course that all the paperwork is preserved,” Stanton said. “Finally, it's very important to have an alternative communication method in place; it may be days before cell service is restored.”
Supporting Staff and the Importance of Good Relationships
As summarized by Stanton, each situation is unique and returning to normal is directly proportional to the damage sustained.
“FEMA is a four-letter word and expect to be dealing with them for the foreseeable future,” he explained. “Their funding is helpful but don't expect reimbursement for everything or that reimbursement will be speedy. Neither is the case.”
Stanton adds that it’s crucial to be transparent and overly supportive to citizens, even when stressed.
“They're feeling more stressed and will approach anyone with a uniform for answers,” he noted. “Get those answers as best you can and make sure you over-support your staff who have likely suffered personal damage.”
County and city governments share geography with school boards, state and federal agencies as well as others. Having a relationship with these agencies can truly complement your fleet and your fleet can complement theirs.
“We used school buses to evacuate folks, we provided fuel and technical/mechanical assistance and shared heavy equipment with local and outside agencies who came to assist us,” Stanton said. “Allied agencies can be a ‘force multiplier;’ having those relationships formed up front is a great benefit, after all, we're all serving the same constituents.”