At a Glance
Some strategies San Bernardino County uses to maximize equipment utilization are:
- Keeping equipment in various locations for easy access.
- Having a welding shop for attachment modifications.
- Training staff to handle a wide scope of responsibilities.
- Using GPS to track location and utilization.
The challenge of clearing, paving, grading and otherwise handling many types of roads is no greater for anyone than it is for the Public Works Department in San Bernardino County, Calif.
The country's largest county is responsible for more than 20,000 square miles of land. Its service area ranges from 7,000 feet above sea level in the Big Bear Mountains to the depths of Death Valley and the Mohave Preserve in the desert. What's more, San Bernardino County faces just about every type of weather element imaginable.
"We see it all, from snow and ice to floods to the effects of extreme heat," said Brendon Biggs, deputy director of operations for the County of San Bernardino's Department of Public Works.
The County's wide range of weather and service locations means Public Works must be ready to handle any incidents that come up, from floods to fires to heavy snow. Having the right equipment available and maximizing utilization is essential. Public Works is able to do this through effective staff and operator training, strategic equipment placement, GPS tracking, and having stocked parts ready.
Ensuring Equipment Availability
The San Bernardino County Public Works department includes divisions for transportation, flood control, solid waste, and surveyor. Among a wide range of tasks, the department is responsible for maintaining County roads and a very extensive system of flood control and water conservation facilities.
The department is split up into a number of areas, but the two most impacted by fleet issues are the transportation and flood control divisions. It is responsible for roads and also road yards and flood control zones scattered across the County. The department's large pool of vehicle equipment is spread around the County, but common equipment allows for easy parts servicing.
The County's Fleet Management Department employees have been trained to modify various attachments and pieces of equipment to fit on multiple vehicles for such functions as snow plowing, road grading in the desert, and clearing. The extreme remote areas where some County or state roads intertwine make it necessary for the County to stockpile some of its equipment in road yards year-round. There are five alone located in the mountainous areas during the depths of winter, Biggs said.
"The only way to get to some of those areas is by state roads, and the State may not always clear them in time, so we need to have equipment on-site," Biggs said. "In case of a big storm, we need to be ready."
In all, there are 14 road yards spread around the County's deserts, mountains, and valleys. There are also six flood control zones with maintenance yards to control flooding, a fairly common occurrence during heavy spring melts.
Tracking Vehicle Use
Recently, GPS units were installed in a large percentage of vehicles used by the County. This capability allows San Bernardino County's department administrators to better track the location and status of its vehicles and other equipment. All operators are trained to not only read the GPS units but also to handle a variety of responsibilities ranging from snow plowing to road grading.
"We do have the ability to move people around, which is a very important consideration with some of the elements we face," Biggs said.
Handling Procurement and Maintenance
The types of equipment used by Public Works vary significantly. They include motor graders, water trucks, snow blowers, crack sealing equipment, scrapers, and the typical trucks and haulers used by departments across the country. The department will auction old equipment to earn back some revenue, but the extreme nature of its physical location and weather elements makes it critical the County has up-to-date equipment that is not likely to break down, Biggs said.
"Our equipment gets pushed, there's no doubt about that," Biggs said.
Maintenance costs are minimized by replacing units when their maintenance costs rise. These units must be able to effectively work in water, extreme heat, wind, snow, and more.
The Fleet Management Department stocks spare parts so repairs and upgrades can be made on any piece of equipment quickly. At any point, a group of professionals may need to be dispatched to handle eroding flood control channels.
San Bernardino County quite possibly houses one of the largest county welding shops in the country, with many of its professionals trained to modify attachments and other pieces of equipment to meet environmental and weather demands. The department's professionals have the skill to make modifications to anything from small toolboxes up to designing and fabricating specialized vehicles and equipment.
Investing in top-quality equipment is certainly a necessity. San Bernardino has an in-house spec committee that designs proposals for bid, comprised of professionals from a wide range of public works areas, including operations, fleet, risk management, and safety.
Investing in Training
Beyond the investment of equipment, the County also invests in its people and in information. Training is a large percentage of the department's spend each year, with an emphasis on cross-training. There are three operator classifications, with those at higher levels being able to handle a wider scope of responsibilities. The County also looks at hosting formal and informal training programs, the value of simulators and whether they should be used to create "what-if" scenarios, and offsite programs in a classroom setting.
Professionals are also members of various trade groups and associations and attend conferences on topics from new truck technologies to handling flood control levees. The ability to cross-train also allows professionals to become more easily promotable. So despite the challenges with working with diverse equipment, the culture and work environment in the County is such that there is comparatively little turnover.
"We go to conventions and talk to other agencies, and most of our regional supervisors are active in one or more [trade] groups," Biggs said. "No one wants to reinvent the wheel, so networking is important. We learn a lot from other departments, but I think now and then, they learn from us too."
The Public Works department also has an affiliation with the Office of Emergency Services (County OES), a division of the San Bernardino County Fire Department. County OES is responsible for disaster planning and emergency management coordination.
In addition to working with first responders, County OES helps coordinate annual exercises to test the readiness of various types of disasters and large-scale emergencies. It also works with Public Works and fleet officials to coordinate the Emergency Alert System notifications for countywide distribution, such as evacuation orders.
While not every month brings a disaster, emergency needs do happen regularly. A serious disaster may occur once or more every four to five years. Snow depths at 7,000 feet above sea level can be as high as two to three feet during one storm. Temperatures frequently rise higher than 120 degrees in the desert during summer months.
"We pay a lot of attention to safety issues and how to properly handle the grading of slopes to pre- and post-trip inspections," Biggs said. "We look at our equipment regularly to see if anything is broken or needs to be repaired."
Focusing on Fleet Maintenance
While Public Works determines equipment utilization, the Fleet Department, headed by Fleet Director Roger Weaver, provides a central location and five service centers throughout the County that can repair vehicles and equipment, track repair costs, and more.
"We use their data to determine optimal time to replace a vehicle or piece of equipment. The Fleet Management Department employs the mechanics that are sent to the road yards. Some mechanics are assigned to a specific road yard while others rotate between yards," said Brendon Biggs, deputy director of operations for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works.
"We deal with [Public Works] generally on a daily basis. They're our main customer for heavy-duty equipment," said Fleet Management Department Superintendent Bob Grisham.
The fact that the County uses primarily one manufacturer for heavy equipment - Caterpillar, selected through a competitive bid process - makes it easier to train the fleet's 18 heavy-duty technicians, Grisham said.
"It makes it easier in the long run because all our technicians are familiar with Cat. It's less training because it's just ongoing training, [even if Cat] changes a model," Grisham said. The fleet is also able to stock fewer parts, and the County's ongoing, long-standing relationship with Caterpillar has resulted in some benefits, including 24-hour access to parts at the manufacturer's nearby Ontario facility. "They will open up in the middle of the night during snow season so we can get equipment going." Grisham added. "We have a great relationship with them."
Fleet also helps Public Works spec vehicles during purchasing, ensuring that operator and technician training are included in the bid, including 100-percent diagnostic access (and equipment), which is essential in minimizing machine downtime, Grisham said.
One particular project on which fleet collaborated closely with Public Works was a striper truck custom-made by the fleet's heavy equipment and weld shops. Public Works wasn't satisfied with the machines it was purchasing, and the amount of money it was investing in modifications and repairs, so it approached the fleet department for a solution.
"We talked to the State and different private entities and we decided to design and make our own, and it was great," Grisham said. "We still have it. It's still working well 10 years later now. When this one wears out, we might just build them another!"
- Brendon Biggs, deputy director of operations, San Bernardino County (Calif.) Public Works Department
- Bob Grisham, superintendent, San Bernardino County Fleet Management Department