Just last year, the City of Tampa, Fla., fleet was severely understaffed. The city’s fleet manager resigned and Connie White-Arnold, previously fleet chief of operations, was appointed interim fleet manager. Taking over the reins, she was missing four supervisors out of six. This was to oversee a fleet of 3,500 vehicles from 27 different departments, with vehicles that include passenger cars, refuse trucks, police vehicles, and fire apparatus.
White-Arnold, however, was up to the task. One of the rare female fleet managers who worked her way up from being a technician, she has since built up a management team with diverse strengths and continues to work on initiatives to improve fleet, including improving utilization, modernizing preventive maintenance scheduling, and improving technician safety.
Starting from Under the Hood
White-Arnold became an automotive technician for the U.S. Air Force 30 years ago. She wanted to learn how to fix cars because she thought it was an important skill to have.
“I was about 95 lbs., and there would be mechanics who would over-tighten bolts, so when I got that vehicle I couldn’t [unscrew them],” she recalled about her first weeks on the job. “But once they saw that I was serious about my craft and wanted to learn, I gained the respect of those guys.”
After seven years, she transitioned to automotive supply, then logistics, then analysis and management. Twenty-two years after joining the Air Force, she retired and in 2007 joined the City of Tampa fleet, where she’s been ever since.
Her time in the Air Force has helped her not just because she learned how to fix cars and manage fleets, but also because it connects her with some area fleet managers in Florida. She has good relationships with neighboring fleet managers, many of whom also retired from the military. She benchmarks most closely with Hillsborough County, and also talks often to the City of Lakeland and Manatee County fleet managers.
“I’m just surrounded by dynamic fleet managers and fleets — we network a lot with each other,” she said.
Working with a Dream Team
White-Arnold can’t stop calling the fleet management team the “dream team.” Most of them have been hired in the past year. She has praise for each person and can tell you why she hired them.
John Daff, fleet work center supervisor, is her right-hand man; he was there during the staff shortage and he’s first on her speed dial. Gary Stewart, fleet analyst supervisor, came from running a contracted public fleet, bringing with him years of contract experience. Jeff Hajdu, fleet logistics and acquisition supervisor, brought with him 15 years of Faster fleet management information system experience, the software the fleet uses. Dick Guerra, work center supervisor for fire maintenance, has extensive expertise in EVT (emergency vehicle technician) requirements. Kevin Koudela, refuse truck line supervisor, was an internal promotion with strong leadership skills. Earl Gant, heavy equipment supervisor, another internal promotion, brings extensive knowledge of the equipment he oversees. Arturo Betty, sedan line supervisor, worked with her in the military; she wanted a fresh set of eyes for the position and he provided it.
The team, except for White-Arnold, wears matching polo shirts, coordinating colors based on the day of the week. On Fridays, they wear red to acknowledge deployed troops, as many of them are ex-military. On Mondays, they wear black, on Wednesdays light blue, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they have an option of blue or gray.
Why do they do this?
“Connie makes us!” one of them said, and the dream team burst into laughter.
“It’s the truth,” he added, as White-Arnold protests.
“It’s their camaraderie,” she said. “I even ask them, ‘How do you guys know when to wear what color?’”
Just like with the management team, she’s exceptionally proud of her staff. For example, she has two body shop employees who do the decals and markings for the entire fleet.
“These guys rock, to be two people and take care of the entire city,” she said.
One of them, Ernie Reina, auto body paint mechanic, worked with Tim Hahn, fleet mechanic III, to refurbish and upfit a Tampa Police Department (TPD) armored vehicle. TPD received the truck as a donation for a nominal price and asked the fleet division to turn it into a bomb truck. Fleet staff built or installed carpeting, shelving, ramp, control panel, robot stand, lights, and handles, sometimes cutting through three layers of steel to get the work done.
It cost $64,000 to do it in-house, while a comparable vehicle purchased new would have cost $250,000, White-Arnold said.
“We get appreciation from the cops often,” she said.
Acting on Opportunities
In 2014, fleet transitioned from a division of Public Works to a division of Logistics and Asset Management. The Logistics department director reports to the city’s chief of staff, and this change has been beneficial for fleet because of the additional support the division receives.
This, in addition to her full staff, led White-Arnold to proclaim: “We’re beyond challenges and we’re at opportunities.”
One recent change is in improving utilization. The fleet has begun an annual utilization study to identify its least-used vehicles. This first year, it’s reduced its fleet by 180 units.
In September, the fleet implemented a preventive maintenance appointment system online. Two bays are dedicated to preventive maintenance, and drivers can go online to make an appointment. The system replaces a call-in method where the phone was ringing constantly and a staff member had to make appointments on paper.
White-Arnold formalized meetings with the existing group of vehicle coordinators from each of the 27 user departments. They now meet monthly — with doughnuts — so fleet can communicate its needs and hear from its users.
Other changes include adding Wi-Fi and getting a new coffee machine for the waiting room to improve customer service. Fleet changed operating hours to be more efficient to customers — with a shortage of staff, White-Arnold switched from two shifts to one longer day shift with a few hours of overlap, to make sure technicians were working when they were most needed.
A couple of years ago, the division added harnesses and fall-protection devices for technicians working on top of high vehicles such as refuse trucks. It also just received approval to purchase an oil analyzer machine in an effort to reduce the number of oil changes and hence, vehicle downtime. Additionally, fleet purchased five tablets for use at the main maintenance facility so technicians don’t have to line up at one computer to use AllData.
For White-Arnold, these changes are just part of being an efficient fleet.
“It’s very important not to get complacent in what we do. You have to be flexible. A fleet has to be able to change with the times,” she said.
Reviewing Upcoming Hurdles
Despite its achievements and upward trajectory, the Tampa fleet has some hurdles to cross.
Like many others, the city is battling an aging fleet. White-Arnold reported that some departments have been able to buy new vehicles in a timely manner.
Another challenge is in keeping up with new technologies and fuels. Twenty eight of the city’s refuse vehicles run on compressed natural gas (CNG), out of 136 trucks.
The challenges lie in budgeting for technician training, determining where to maintain vehicles, and deciding on fueling. Right now, an awning outside is reserved for CNG vehicle maintenance, and there’s a slow-fill fueling station on site.
The Department of Solid Waste wants to replace all its refuse trucks with CNG vehicles, and as that slowly happens, the fleet division will need to adjust.
The division is also working to get funding to install diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) dispensers at some of its 10 fueling stations.
However, with a dream team and support from management, White-Arnold believes the Tampa fleet will overcome these challenges.
“We’re not as sleek and sophisticated as most places,” she said. “We’re a grassroots place here, but we get the job done. I’m so proud of these guys.”
*Update: In November, White-Arnold was named Tampa's fleet manager.