The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Planning for Disaster

Responding to a natural or man-made catastrophe could be the defining moment of a fleet manager’s career. The key to successfully weathering a disaster is having a plan.

September 2012, by Chris Wolski - Also by this author

As this year’s severe weather and the plethora of forest fires have shown, disasters of every shape or size can happen anywhere with or without warning. And, while a natural or man-made disaster could disrupt the lives of tens of thousands or even millions of people, it doesn’t mean that fleet operations need to stop.

In fact, according to Walter Burnett, CAFM, project consultant for Jones Surveying & Engineering Corp. in Macomb, Ill., having a disaster plan will go a long way in helping the fleet and its company weather the catastrophe and get back to business as usual.

9/11 Changed Everything

The importance of an effective, well-designed disaster plan was brought front and center during the terrorist attacks on New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, according to Burnett.

“It changed everything,” he said. “The key there at the World Trade Center was that everything was so integrated. And, transportation is fundamental to it all. If fleet is not responding properly, everyone else will have a tougher time or can’t function. Fleet is becoming more recognized as being a key part of the disaster response.”

Burnett, who served as fleet manager for several municipalities, including Beverly Hills, Calif., and Macomb, Ill. (from which he retired as public works director), has developed a number of disaster plans — which he said he fortunately never had to test in reality — that can easily be translated into a commercial fleet context.

Getting Started

A fleet’s disaster plan could be part and parcel of a company’s overall disaster strategy. “Work within your own company. Most companies have emergency managers who are responsible for planning the company’s response to an event,” Burnett said.

There are also government resources (see sidebar: “Disaster Planning Resources” on page 4) that can help fleet managers begin drafting their plan. Other manuals are available as well.

No matter the source for designing a plan, it should ultimately include the following elements:

  • The fleet’s mission and duties.
  • A disaster organization chart.
  • Responsibilities.
  • Reporting procedures.
  • Contact information.
  • Important resources.

This operations manual “is company policy,” Burnett said. And, while there needs to be a manual, it should only be written after all the details of the plan are worked out.

Burnett also recommended avoiding working in large groups. Instead, the planning process can be handled by a point person — in the case of a fleet disaster plan, by the fleet manager — with individual feedback from company stakeholders.

No matter the fleet’s overall goal, according to Burnett, there are three areas fleet managers need to focus on when developing their plan: fuel, vehicles, and maintenance. “You have to have your lines of supply in place,” he said.

For instance, Burnett recommended fuel contracts should be written with disasters in mind. “During Hurricane Andrew, there was no fuel available because fuel suppliers were gouging the public until the federal government was able to step in,” he said. “So, to the degree you can in your contract, there should be a provision that your fuel supplier must make good faith efforts to supply fuel or there will be contractual consequences — that should make them pause in a crisis.”

For fleets that plan to have an emergency reserve on hand, they will need to have at least 72 hours’ worth of fuel (the average amount of time it takes before there is a Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] response) and be aware of other potential problems.

“If you have a tank farm, one thing you have to answer — does it have power? These are the kind of things that you have to think through,” Burnett said.

In terms of maintenance, if fleet handles its own maintenance, then it should have a stock of critical parts that will see it through the emergency.

If maintenance is outsourced, Burnett advised understanding the repair shop’s disaster plan and consider spreading the fleet’s business to other shops to have options in a time of emergency.

“Preventive maintenance is essential, because you have to recognize that the fleet will have to function for sustained operation,” he said.

Other items to take into account are emergency routes in case a regular route is closed or impassable. Security planning will have to be considered, including fencing, cameras, etc., to keep fleet assets safe. While it may seem overwhelming at first glance, according to Burnett, it’s a fairly simple process to address all of the elements that need to be considered prior to a disaster.

“You can sit down and brainstorm and pretty much figure out your vulnerabilities,” Burnett observed.

It can be tempting to develop a plan that is detailed and all-encompassing. Rigidity is a mistake. “The disaster plan needs to be structured yet flexible,” Burnett advised.

This is because, while most of the obvious disasters can be anticipated (e.g., earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida), there could still be an unexpected event or unexpected consequence of a natural disaster that requires making amendments to the plan. Whatever the fleet plans for, Burnett recommended that it be a “worst-case scenario.”

Burnett also observed that, in a disaster, a fleet may have a more expanded role. For instance, it may be handling some accounting functions — such as fleet payroll — during the event due to the fact that regular administrative services are tied up dealing with other aspects of the company’s disaster response.

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