6 Reasons Telematics is Essential for Snow Operations

Photo via Getty Images

The number-one thing public agencies should be concerned with in a snow event is keeping constituents safe, according to Amin Amini, managing partner of solutions engineering for Verizon Connect. And part of that is plowing roads quickly and efficiently.

Telematics technology can help public agencies accomplish this — while also providing data points that can offer transparency, control and reduce salt use, and protect drivers.

1. Find your vehicles and know if they’re ready to go

The first thing fleet managers need to know before deploying vehicles is where they are and what condition they’re in, Amini said. UTVs, pickup trucks, and heavy vehicles may be in different areas of a city or county and knowing exactly where they are will help ensure the quickest response. And telematics can identify what condition vehicles are in ahead of time to help fleet departments ensure their vehicles are in good condition before they need to be used.

2. Plan routes and track vehicles

Telematics can also help with route planning or be integrated with an existing route planner.

For large municipalities with multiple drivers taking multiple shifts, accurate routing and tracking data allow snow operations staff to send new drivers out to areas that haven’t been treated, Amini said.

Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. For example, a new driver may be unfamiliar with a route and miss a turn, or an obstruction on the road prevents the driver from passing. Magellan’s Return to Route feature gets drivers back on their routes as efficiently as possible, according to Ted Lee, head of business and product innovation for Magellan.

Municipalities can use telematics data to exonerate their employees when a claim comes in about...

Municipalities can use telematics data to exonerate their employees when a claim comes in about property damage, which is usually higher during snow season, according to Verizon's Amin Amini.

Photo courtesy of Verizon

3. Know whether a street has been plowed, and when

Fleet managers can know whether plowing or spreading has been performed. Telematics devices can detect whether a plow is up or down or if a spreader is on or off.

“This is important for municipalities to track to make sure service was performed well,” said Sherry Wu, product marketing manager for Samsara.

Wu added that Samsara’s system provides live, to-the-second GPS coordinates, providing better information than ones that send data every 30 seconds or longer.

5 Questions Your Telematics System Can Answer

According to Lisa Park, AVP, advanced mobility and enterprise solutions for AT&T:

  • How much salt has been spread?
  • Has the route been plowed, and what still needs to be plowed?
  • Is the vehicle plow up or down?
  • Where are my plow trucks now?
  • What is the condition of the vehicles?

4. Know how much salt or sand you’re using

“A more advanced feature is the ability to integrate with spreader controllers to determine what is being spread and how much is spread,” said Chris Jackson, vice president of government operations for BSM, a Geotab ­company.

“In Canada, where salt is considered a toxic substance, agencies that use more than a certain amount are required to create a salt management plan,” Jackson explained. “Telematics can track salt use much more accurately than counting the buckets of salt added to a truck.”

In the U.S., government agencies are more driven by cost, and salt costs can be high and fluctuate. Tracking salt dispersal can allow agencies to reduce salt use.

“It will show the real-time rates and if the actual rates are not where they should be, they can say, ‘Well, those vehicles aren’t calibrated,’ and they can address those issues,” Jackson explained.

5. Inform the public

Another important benefit of telematics is transparency and to show citizens when their streets have been or will be plowed. Many public agencies have websites where citizens can view this information, and the plow up-down or spreader on-off features help ensure it’s accurate.

“Prior to this rich telematics data, it was all assumptions, knowing that they’d sent out a driver to plow X roads and hoping it was complete,” Amini explained.

And while it’s most helpful to know whether and when a street has been plowed, Jackson said fleets that aren’t ready for that can simply show vehicle location data.

“The purpose of that, for some agencies, is to show, ‘Hey, we’re out there, we’re working,’ and to provide that transparency,” he explained.

Telematics can show where a vehicle has been and the diagnostic information for that vehicle....

Telematics can show where a vehicle has been and the diagnostic information for that vehicle. Pictured is the dashboard for Samsara.

Photo courtesy of Samsara

6. Protect your operators

During snow events, the number of property damage claims goes up, Amini said.

“So what municipalities are using this data for is to exonerate their employees when a claim comes in about a snowplow driver or for property damage. They can go into the platform and say, ‘No, Mr./Mrs. Constituent, in fact, our operator was not at your house, or your street, or your mailbox during this window of time,’” he said. “Drivers welcome that kind of exoneration, because for far too long, it’s been very perception-based and not data-based.”

Safety Is the No. 1 Goal

“When you’re dealing with winter storms, response times matter,” Wu, with Samsara, said.

And while using salt efficiently and knowing vehicle condition data can help fleet managers make smart decisions, telematics’ most important benefit for winter operations may be quick and efficient plowing and spreading to ensure safety on the roads.

Success Stories in Winter Telematics Operations

Here are some examples of public fleets that have successfully integrated telematics into their snow operations:

Improving Communication

“A municipality in Canada was having problems with communicating snow operation status updates to residents. A city council member the mayor, and a Public Works employee would all have differing ideas about the status, which became a problem when talking to the media,” said Chris Jackson, vice president of government operations for BSM, a Geotab company.

The city added a color-coded map of plow and salting updates on its website and combined it with its Twitter account.

“They have a social feed alongside this 511 information,” Jackson said. “They said, ‘This is our control point of communications.’ They were sending this to councilors, to the mayor’s communications office, and to the media. They’re saying, ‘Everybody, if you want to understand the current status of our operation, here it is.’”

Working with Substitute Drivers

Magellan's Return to Route feature gets drivers back on their routes as efficiently as possible.

Magellan's Return to Route feature gets drivers back on their routes as efficiently as possible.

Photo courtesy of Magellan

New York City has about 3,500 vehicles used for snow removal. That means thousands of drivers are needed, as well as substitute drivers, said Ted Lee, for Magellan.

“Each truck has two to three shifts per day, so that’s 10,000 drivers per day for all five boroughs,” Lee explained.

As substitute drivers are unfamiliar with routes, that’s where the company’s Return to Route feature is most important. If plow trucks are blocked by a vehicle or a fallen tree, the feature tells them the most effective way to get around the obstacle and return to the route, not leaving a single unplowed block.

“The training and operations cost they’ve saved have been tremendous,” he added.

Knowing exact location is key for this. Magellan has a GPS algorithm that provides better signals in major cities with high-rises such as New York, providing 92% accuracy in comparison to 50% for a regular navigation system, Lee said.

Improving Deployment Times

The Arkansas Department of Transportation faces constant governmental and taxpayer oversight and was looking to improve its operating efficiency. To do so, it installed Verizon Connect (then Networkfleet) telematics on all 2,500 of its highway passenger vehicles. The system allowed dispatchers to direct dump trucks, snow plows, and other vehicles to emergency situations quicker, and fleet staff can keep the public informed about where their snow trucks are and where they’re going, according to Verizon.

Additionally, the system allowed the department to save nearly $500,000 in bulk fuel expenses by reducing unnecessary driving and miles driven.

Optimizing Routes

The Town of Edison, N.J., has its nearly 400 vehicles equipped with telematics, and about 50 of these are used for snow operations. This equipment is dispersed across departments, and with no routing software, employees were assigned routes based on employee input and whoever knew the town best. That meant sometimes, a driver was responsible for plowing streets in the opposite sides of town, said Jim DeVico, technology manager for the township.

Using telematics from Samsara and its routing software “took away the opinion and subjective part of it and make it more data driven,” DeVico said. Improved routing means faster plowing — a route that might have taken three hours previously now only takes two.

It also helped the township handle resident complaints and reduce payouts for property damage claims.

“We can verify or disprove those complaints. We used to pay out those claims and now we don’t pay those out anymore,” he said.

About the author
Thi Dao

Thi Dao

Former Executive Editor

Thi is the former executive editor of Government Fleet magazine.

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