The first novel coronavirus (COVID-19) case in the U.S. was confirmed on January 21 in Washington state, and cases within the U.S. rose. In March, states and municipalities began enacting stay-at-home policies, including stay-at-home orders for all non-essential workers and closures of non-essential businesses.
Government fleet operations, key in keeping first responders and other essential workers on the road, stayed open. To keep staff members as safe as possible, fleet managers have shifted operations to comply with their agencies’ policies and to follow stricter guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting.
Fleet operations have adjusted to work-from-home orders, reduced utilization, and employee safety enhancements. Here are a few changes fleet operations have made during the coronavirus pandemic:
- Allowing administrative staff to work from home while keeping technicians in the shop
- Asking technicians who are at home to work on their technical certifications
- Rotating shifts or splitting days so fewer technicians are in the shop at any time
- Staggering shifts, lunch times, and breaktimes to discourage employees from congregating
- Placing markers on the floor and rearranging common areas to promote social distancing
- Conducting virtual inspections of vehicles being built rather than having employees fly in for in-person inspections
- Closing facilities to outside visitors and asking vendors to drop off products, such as parts, outside
- Requiring drivers to leave keys in the vehicles rather than dropping them off in person
- Increasing sanitizing of vehicles, parts, shared areas, tools, etc.
- Servicing high priority vehicles first while delaying maintenance on non-essential vehicles
- Catching up on the backlog of work since work orders have decreased
- Discouraging use of motor pool vehicles and/or reducing the number of pooled vehicles available to drivers
- Stocking up on surplus parts in the event of disruptions in parts supply
- Tracking vendors to make sure they are still open, including fuel suppliers, parts suppliers, dealerships, and repair shops.
Cleaning & Sanitizing
One of the major topics of conversation (and confusion) among fleet professionals is the cleaning and sanitizing of vehicles and work areas. Many fleet managers report having a hard time purchasing cleaning and disinfecting products, and they’re using isopropyl alcohol solutions, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide to clean surfaces.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of approved cleaners for coronavirus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a guidance for cleaning ambulances after transporting a patient with COVID-19. In addition, the federal General Services Administration (GSA) has released a vehicle cleaning and disinfecting guidance document. The GSA recommends:
- Sanitizing frequently touched vehicle surfaces on a regular basis.
- Using recommended cleaners for vehicles such as non-bleach, unscented, non-chlorinated disinfectants and cleaners; alcohol solutions that contain at least 70% alcohol; and soap and water as long as car interior surfaces are not saturated.
- Being aware that some cleaning agents can damage the interior and exterior of vehicles. Avoid bleach or hydrogen peroxide inside vehicles, scented wipes and wipes with bleach, ammonia-based cleaners on car touchscreens or dashboards, and combining cleaning chemicals.
Some local cleaning companies and even garages are offering free cleaning and disinfecting services for first responder vehicles such as patrol cars and fire trucks.
Preparing for the Recession and Budget Cuts
Fleet professionals expect that the pandemic and expected recession will negatively affect their budgets.
That means reduced capital budget for purchases for the next fiscal-year and aggressively working on purchases this year to put in all the vehicle orders they can. Many also anticipate — and some already see — a hiring freeze, and at least one fleet manager has stopped hiring early to protect his current staff in the event of future furloughs or layoffs.
Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Associates, said with any recession, fleet managers can expect pressure to find cost savings and scrutiny about staffing levels, chargeback rates, and use (or lack of use) of vendors. He also anticipates calls for fleet size reductions and advised fleet managers to begin to think about how much of this they can control and prepare where possible.
Waste Volume Rises
Waste volume has increased for many municipal fleets, which often service residential routes. As residents shelter in place, work from home, and begin cleaning projects, waste volume on residential routes have increased by as much as 30%, according to David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
To focus on collecting the increased amount of trash, local government agencies have suspended yard waste collection, bulky pickup, compost pickup, and/or electronics recycling.
One potential long-term outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increased interest in purchasing automated side loaders that only require one operator, Biderman said. While they may be more expensive to purchase and require more maintenance due to more moving parts, it would allow operators to safely work alone without worrying about social distancing rules.
A New Use for Drones
Police agencies have started dispatching drones to promote social distancing. Whether using their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or manufacturer loans, drones have been used to fly around an area with a voice message from either the Police Department or an elected official reminding residents not to congregate and that public spaces such as parks are closed. This reduces the need to send an officer to an area to deliver the same message, further helping with social distancing.
Keeping Up Morale
Fleet employees working in shops or at home may face anxiety, depression, and/or loneliness during the pandemic. Much of this stems from uncertainty and lack of control.
Here are some ways fleet managers can help employees (and themselves) handle anxiety during a pandemic, courtesy of Veronica Kelley, director for the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Department of Behavioral Health, and Cris Zamora, employee assistance resource coordinator for the City of Milwaukee, Wis.
- Focus on what you can control, such as following guidelines from the CDC regarding hand washing and social distancing.
- Limit your news intake — check the news once or twice a day to stay informed, and get your news from reputable sources.
- Keep in touch with friends and family via phone, e-mail, or social media.
- Exercise, get rest, and eat healthy foods.
- Communicate with employees often, which is especially important for those who are working from home. Send e-mails, create a Facebook Live event or Zoom conference, or provide a “minute with a director” video of updates.
- For those dealing with death in their fleet organizations or among their family or friends, know that grief is a normal process that must run its course. For an employee death, consider an online memorial.
Fleet Operations Snapshot
New York City
In mid-April, New York City reported a 32% reduction in direct service orders for repair shops. However, the Review Avenue Ambulance Shop has seen a 137% increase in work orders.
The shop is used to maintain 600 ambulances and hundreds of other emergency response units. It has 103 staff members, many of whom are working 12-hour shifts to keep up with the workload. Mechanics from other shops are volunteering to assist at the ambulance shop.
The Fire Department has instituted regular cleaning and disinfecting of all fleet facilities, and vendors are disinfecting vehicles as they come into the repair shops before work is done.
Multiple departments stepped up to provide mobile fueling to ambulances so operators don’t have to worry about fueling. Paramedics can get mobile fueling at eight different hospitals and medical care locations, and staff members are making use of 35 fuel trucks that were procured after Hurricane Sandy.
New York City also reported the deaths of two fleet employees.
Miami-Dade County, Fla.
The Miami-Dade County fleet has 19 shops. Utilization has decreased for most customer departments, but its biggest customers, Solid Waste and Police, are still running normally. Department heads are sending in vehicles for maintenance since the cars are sitting idle.
All administrative staff members, including Alex Alfonso, division director for fleet management, and anyone over 65 or has a serious health condition, began working from home or are home on administrative pay. There are social distancing measures in the shops, and employees have gloves, cleaning supplies, and masks. Their temperatures are also checked, and those with a fever and cold symptoms are sent home.
The department purchased three months’ worth of surplus parts to prepare for the pandemic and for hurricane season. It also began topping off fuel sites more frequently in case there is a disruption of fuel supplies.
Eugene Water & Electric Board, Ore.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Eugene Water & Electric Board fleet has been working to ensure that technicians stay safe on the shop floor, said Gary Lentsch, CAFM, fleet manager for the utility. That includes encouraging technicians to use latex gloves while working on vehicles, installing hand sanitizer dispensers in the shop, keeping a can of spray disinfectant at technician workstations, and ensuring technicians don’t wear their work clothing home.
Lentsch purchased sure-shot-type sprayers and assigned them to his technicians. The shop uses 99% isopropyl alcohol and mixes with about 30% water (giving them a 70% solution). They are used to disinfect vehicles before technicians get inside them. His technicians will also spray down towels — used to wipe components down — that can’t be sprayed by the sprayers. The sprayers are also used on vehicles driven by employees who go home sick.
Lentsch reported that vehicle use has decreased significantly.