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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Avoiding the Pitfalls

While most fleet managers could undoubtedly handle a plan for keeping the company’s vehicles running, Burnett said the biggest mistake a fleet manager could make in designing a disaster strategy is not planning for the people.

“The instinct is to call the cavalry,” he observed. “Instead, measure your response.”

This involves properly scheduling personnel. For instance, staff can be broken into two groups, red and blue. When the call to report goes out, all that needs be communicated is which group needs to respond, and the second group will arrive to relieve the first responders at a preset interval. Burnett advised that the first employees on the scene be cycled out within 24 hours. “You have to develop a plan for 24/7 operations,” he said. “A 12-on-12-off shift is the most effective as long as there’s shelter and other resources available.”

The big difference between traditional emergency personnel and a fleet — particularly a commercial fleet that is carrying out the business of its company — is that the fleet will be carrying out less intensive functions for longer periods of time. The recent power outage in Maryland, which spanned more than a week, saw power crews working long after the immediate dangers of the storm that caused the outage had passed.

Training Employees, Convincing Management

Burnett advocates that employees be briefed about the disaster plan the day they start on the job with classroom refreshers at regular intervals.

In addition to making employees understand reporting procedures and their role during the emergency, training could also include basic first aid, CPR, and basic search and rescue techniques. Employees and senior personnel should also be briefed about the jargon used by emergency responders such as police and firefighters, so they can effectively communicate with them.

The plan, as it’s presented to the employees, must be straightforward, clearly articulated, and written with the idea that it may not be a senior executive who will be the first on the scene. “A janitor may be the first one there. So, the easier you make it on the employee, the more fool-proof the plan will be,” Burnett said.

While it is important to introduce employees to the emergency plan early on and emphasize their role in it, Burnett noted that faced with a choice between making sure the business is safe and their families are safe, they will choose the latter every time. “You have to keep in mind that employees may be personally affected by the disaster,” he said.

When Burnett was fleet manager of Beverly Hills, Calif., he realized that very few of the City’s employees lived in the community, so he and his colleagues decided, in the event of a catastrophe, that the City’s public parking garages would be turned into temporary housing for City employees and their families. In the event of a disaster, employees were to report with their families in tow. “If a company or organization could arrange something along these lines, I think it would be a very good idea,” he said.

Selling the idea of spending time and possibly money to develop a plan that may never be used, is admittedly “tough” even in the best of times, said Burnett. But, it can be done.

“If you can co-opt your fleet operators and make it very specific to fleet and how it will affect the corporate structure, then you will make a strong case,” he said.

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Making a Radical Proposal

Reflecting his municipal experience, Burnett advocates developing reciprocal relationships with suppliers and competitors to keep business functions going.

This might be a particularly difficult idea to sell both to employers and competitors. “Private sector mutual aid is less developed than in the public sector,” Burnett admitted.

But, cooperating during a disaster may be the key to business survival for both parties. “Then, if both of your businesses survive the disaster, you can go back to being competitors,” Burnett said.

Test-Driving Disaster

Of course, the only way to know if a disaster plan really works is if there is a bona fide catastrophe. But, a plan can be driven around the block, as it were, by conducting training drills and tabletop exercises.

For Burnett, the tabletop exercises are probably the most effective way to play out a disaster and should, if possible, be run a couple times a year. A tabletop exercise involves the crisis management team gathering for three hours to talk through a simulated disaster, which involves escalating the scenario. After each escalation or segment, small working groups discuss how they would respond and then report their moves to the moderators before the next segment is announced.

He also recommended that the fleet run its own scenario at least once a year. If the opportunity arises, the fleet manager should also take advantage of other departments’ disaster drills, and take part in them.
Wider-scale drills, such as those run at city, county, or even state levels can help companies and their fleets see how they will fit into the bigger picture of an event.

After the Disaster: Do a Postmortem

If a disaster does occur, Burnett said that it is imperative that a postmortem be held after it’s all over.

  • The steps that should be taken include:
  • Debrief all involved.
  • Present a formal after-action report.
  • Modify the plan.
  • Implement the new plan, both in the existing manual and in subsequent training and disaster operations.
  • Experiencing the ‘Defining Moment’

Transportation is becoming widely recognized as a key element in any disaster plan. Even if a fleet manager’s company doesn’t have a disaster plan, it doesn’t mean the fleet shouldn’t or couldn’t have one. “That’s where you many come out being a hero,” Burnett said.

Having a plan before a disaster strikes, even if it’s a haphazard plan, written on a cocktail napkin, is crucial, according to Burnett.

While it may sound dramatic, Burnett summed up disaster planning this way: “How you respond in an emergency will be the defining event of your career.”

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