How do you handle a fleet disaster?

Judy Workman
Fleet Manager
City of Greeley, Colorado
Member, APWA Fleet Services Committee

The following two case studies are great examples of how fleet management can survive serious disasters that can impact any city or county. The first event relates the devastation of losing a shop when wind and snow collapsed the fleet shop roof in the City of Littleton, Colorado. The second case describes a devastating fire inside the sanitation building of the City of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Littleton, Colorado
Alan Brown, fleet manager for the City of Littleton, Colorado, experienced a disaster that would be a nightmare to endure—losing a building. The City of Littleton shares the experience of rebuilding and interim negotiations for operation while trying to keep the fleet up and running after a snow disaster. Here is his story:

Back in March 2003, the City of Littleton had the unique opportunity of dealing with our own emergency while in the midst of a citywide weather emergency. The city and fleet staff were responding to the needs generated by a 100-year snowstorm that left anywhere from 4-6 feet of snow throughout the Denver metro area. That kind of storm causes a fair amount of response from all services provided by the city. Public works vehicles, police vehicles and fire/rescue vehicles were all working overtime. Fleet staff, at least those who were able to dig out and get to the shop, put in some very long hours providing support to our customers' vehicles during this storm.

Mechanics and supervisors both had been in shop working from as early as 3 a.m. the morning after the snow began. We had been chaining vehicles, repairing tires and replacing plow bits rapidly until a natural break provided itself around noon and we vacated the shop in favor of lunch and parts runs. That was the fortunate part, because at that time the buildup of heavy wet snow on the roof collapsed our shop almost entirely. The support provided by equipment left in the building was the only reason the shop did not come completely to the ground. We were very fortunate not to have anyone injured.

As the fleet manager I first heard the news on the two-way radio. I overheard the streets superintendent tell his drivers not to bother going to the shop as there was no shop. That gave me a chance to start the thought process on the way back, but I really had no idea of what we were facing yet.

Upon my return, rescue and salvage operations had already begun but were not far along yet. Our initial challenge was to get the site secured and safe, and to try to minimize damage to vehicles and equipment still in the shop. Water, which was flowing freely, as well as gas and power had to be shut down. Safe access to the building had to be established in order to get to panels and valves. This was accomplished with the help of a backhoe that we used to tear the overhead doors off the building. Staff engineers and inspectors came over to provide advice and to make judgments on the safety of the structure, and fire rescue personnel were on the scene as well.

Once the water, power and gas were shut off and entry was gained, we began to focus on salvaging tools and equipment that could be readily removed from the collapsed structure. Coordination was made immediately with other departments to secure storage space for these items indefinitely. Once we had secured as many items as possible, our attention turned to demolition and the recovery of vehicles and equipment remaining in the shop. Simultaneously, we began to explore ways to continue doing our job without a facility.

  The collapse of the fleet shop roof in Littleton, Colorado

On the matter of demolition, several companies were contacted and invited to the site. These organizations were instructed to prepare bids based upon a few key concepts, the most important of which was to recover equipment in the process without causing further damage. The contract was awarded in record time for a government agency and the goal of demolition and recovery was accomplished in very short order.

In order to assure that our customers' vehicles were maintained until better arrangements could be made, a number of steps were taken almost immediately. First, vendors were contacted and apprised of our situation with the intent of incorporating any outsourced services necessary to keep up with fleet maintenance. In the end, very little outsourcing was required. Second, local government agencies in close proximity were contacted for the purpose of soliciting emergency help if needed. We were very well received by these other agencies and some of their offers proved to be our short-term salvation. As a result of generous offers from these agencies, we set up operations in three different locations.

The county had just vacated a building that housed a small shop in the rear where they previously worked on sheriff's vehicles. They offered us the complete, unencumbered and unreimbursed use of that facility until such time as it was sold. We set up light duty operations there within days and continued to use the facility for some eight months hence.

A neighboring fire protection district agreed to rent us a bay in their maintenance facility for an undetermined amount of time as well. We set up shop for our fire mechanic in their facility, again within days. That arrangement continued until January of this year and proved to be a very strong learning experience for the mechanic.

The rest of our operation was established in the Public Works Department's warm storage building. This was at great sacrifice to the user departments but done without complaint. That situation also persisted until January of this year when we moved into the reconstructed shop. The silver lining to this situation was the fact that we were allowed to purchase a mobile truck hoist and other equipment that might not have been possible under other circumstances.

Spread out through five different locations (parts and fleet manager were in still other locations) presented some serious logistical challenges. The foremost challenge, communication, was met primarily through the purchase of NEXTEL phones for the fleet staff. We found these so indispensable that we continue to use them today, though we are back under one roof. Movement of vehicles, parts and supplies was also difficult. We integrated the help of user departments where possible and commissioned vendors to help as well. We were able to create a real win-win situation by incorporating the help of an intern/driver from a local agency that works with the disabled. This relationship continues to be fruitful today.

The entire incident worked out so well that we barely lost any productivity in the short run. In the long haul, as we developed our processes, we actually improved productivity over past performances. Much of this was to the delight and astonishment of our customer base. The department never used the situation as an excuse to not do our job, and we continued to meet expectations in our wounded circumstances. This may have lessened the citywide sense of urgency where we were concerned. As a result, decisions that eventually provided relief were postponed.

Although we had begun the process of designing and building a new fleet maintenance facility, it was quickly apparent that "fast tracking" that project was not the answer to our immediate situation. We then began to look for suitable properties that might be leased until a new facility could be completed. This direction proved to be fruitless and distracted our attention from a real solution for too long. Ultimately, what needed to occur was to utilize insurance funds and rebuild the old shop.

Reconstructing the old facility is exactly what we have done, while continuing the process of building our new fleet facility. We lost precious time in the decision-making process, but were back in the old shop by January 2004. The building has some improvements that come with new construction but has the same inadequacies that the old structure manifested. Nonetheless, we are under one roof again, moving forward with changes that had been undertaken previously and performing our jobs better than ever. We hope to break ground on the new facility this summer.

Contributed by Alan Brown, Fleet Manager, City of Littleton, Colorado

The City of Flagstaff
On a snowy Tuesday in February 2004, a devastating fire occurred in the City of Flagstaff's sanitation building. Inside were 10 of the city's sanitation fleet—seven side-loaders, one front-loader, one roll-off and one rear-loader. All were first-line trucks, new or less than one year old.

An automated side-loader destroyed by the sanitation building fire in Flagstaff, Arizona

It was estimated the fire started between 5-6 p.m. Fortunately, snow removal personnel driving into the yard noticed smoke billowing out of the enclosed building. When the fire was extinguished, the damaged trucks resembled battleship row at Pearl Harbor. Three side-loaders were totaled and there were four others with extensive damage.

The preliminary plan for keeping sanitation routes on schedule was to run three old backup side-loaders on a 24/7 schedule. The distress message went out to SWANA (Solid Waste Association of North America) and RMFMA (Rocky Mountain Fleet Management Association) Arizona, and cities immediately coordinated with their legal departments to allow their trucks to be loaned to the City of Flagstaff. The response was quickly answered with the arrival of trucks from the following Arizona cities: two trucks from Peoria; two from Phoenix; and one each from Scottsdale and Mesa.

Within two days a multi-colored side-loader fleet was busy picking up cans with minimal interruption of routes. The city's Environmental Services Division worked additional hours, and Fleet Services extended shifts to accommodate nightly repairs and to ensure that the equipment was road-ready for the morning shift. Nightly repairs are frequent and numerous on a backup fleet.

Risk Management, the insurance company, and representatives from Heil and Volvo began the tedious task of determining the cause of the fire. It is likely that an electrical short caused the damage.

The City of Flagstaff's City Council, as well as upper management, was amazed at how quickly the above organizations responded. For years I have realized the importance of our membership in these organizations. This tragedy demonstrates the networking that takes place when one member meets with a need. Memberships are the key to the kind of response that we experienced.

Our mayor will deliver Proclamations of Appreciation to the Cities of Peoria, Mesa, Phoenix and Scottsdale. A special note of appreciation comes from Fleet Services in extending a note of gratitude. Job well done! How do you handle a disaster? Better have a darn good networking organization!

Contributed by James Brohamer, Fleet Management Superintendent, City of Flagstaff, Arizona

Plan for future emergencies
These case studies show the creativity and importance of having good working relationships with your neighbors. The City of Greeley often conducts emergency operation events that include neighboring jurisdictions. The Fire Department has helped us coordinate mock events for terrorism emergencies. Do your city or county a favor and plan for future emergencies. If you would like copies of the exercises that we used contact Judy Workman at (970) 350-9375.

Thank you to both Alan and Jim for sharing their stories. Hopefully you can draw upon their experiences to assist in your community's disaster management planning.

Judy Workman can be reached at (970) 350-9375 or at workmanj@ci.greeley.co.us; Alan Brown can be reached at (303) 795-3959 or at asab@littletongov.org; and James Brohamer can be reached at (928) 556-1257 or at jbrohamer@ci.flagstaff.az.us.