Out In The Storm: Fleet Prep In Dangerous Weather

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Release date: 8/31/2017

Out In The Storm: Fleet Prep In Dangerous Weather (Originally published in NAFA FLEETSolutions January/February 2016)

NOTE: NAFA's prayers go out to the people of Texas and Louisiana, who are braving the effects of the unprecedented Hurricane Harvey. The information in this report from our archive has a lot of valuable tips for people dealing with storm situations. NAFA believes that being prepared, whether you are driving for an organization or for your own purposes, is an ever-growing necessity.

Fleets-Prepare-For-Storms.jpgDrivers need to be aware of weather conditions all the time, not just in the winter months. Ask Bob Henson, Weather and Climate Science Writer for the Weather Channel’s website Weather Underground. “When it rains, it rains harder now. Downpours are increasing in intensity.”

This build-up of storm intensity has been going on for a few decades now, according to Henson, but has exacerbated another weather phenomenon fairly recently. “A weather situation will persist for several weeks in the form of a stuck weather pattern.”

These patterns find storm systems settling in rather than moving away toward the east as usual. Henson pointed to the early-2015 snows that seemed to stay over the New England region for the entirety of the winter, or rains in May-June 2015 that saw the wettest months Oklahoma and Texas has ever recorded.

“Parts of Oklahoma had 20 to 30 inches of rain,” Henson said.

At the end of May 2015, the headlines read, “Texas floods: Enough rain fell in May to cover entire state 8 inches deep.” In early-October the East Coast sat out strong rain activity and prepared for a possible landing from Hurricane Joaquin. In the Carolinas, deadly floods shook the region and damaged crucial infrastructure.

If storms are the new normal, drivers will need to learn how to deal with them. Fleet managers must know how to train and handle the driver. And drivers who absolutely must be out at the worst times must take to heart the best practices to see them through.

In The Extremes - Tom Lubas, President of the NAFA Foundation, experienced weather’s extremes first-hand as the former Fleet Manager of the Port Authority of NY & NJ. During his time he had the unenviable task of keeping systems from going under as Superstorm Sandy made a sudden left turn offshore and slammed into the NY/NJ region.

“I had a room at a hotel between my office and the Hudson River, but far from the river’s edge. We packed up a shop truck to take, which had a very high clearance. As we’re driving to this hotel, the water seems to be getting higher and higher. We saw what appeared to be an emergency vehicle light bar floating on top of the water, but was actually a fully submerged fire truck, right up to the roof. We turned around and I slept in my office,” Lubas said.

“You have to know how deep the water is,” said NAFA Past President Claude Masters, CAFM®. “Don’t know? Don’t go. Once you’re in it, it is too late.” Having a contingent of vehicles with a high clearance is important not only to do offroad work, but in extremes to traverse the roads themselves.

A former Manager of Vehicle Acquisition and Fuel Fleet Services for Florida Power & Light, Masters faced his share of dangerous weather during his years in fleet. Because FP&L would have to be out in the storms at times where people would be asked to stay home, individuals had to prepare for conditions few of us would ever witness. “We would do storm drills and dry runs. I’d describe what conditions were like, how to pay attention to downed power lines, how to use bridge overpasses as a measure of flood water depths…that is necessary preparation.”

2Fleets-Prepare-For-Storms.jpgWhen It Is Your Job To Be In The Storm - Wind is also a major issue, especially if you are in a utility bucket truck attempting to get a community’s power back on.

Henson said that this, too will be a condition we’ll see more of. “The seasons are evolving a little bit. There’s more of a tendency toward early tornadoes, earlier in the spring, than we used to get.” While tornadoes are historically some of the scariest weather concerns, a new term has been showing up in the news cycle: derechos. “When you have a very hot air mass toward the south, and a cool air mass in the north, that contrast can help fuel these very fast straight-line systems, and can catch people unaware.”

“The aerial device manufacturers all have their own standards for the maximum wind speed at which their devices can be operated,” Masters said. “Some are in the 35 mile-per-hour wind range. When winds get above that, they don’t recommend you operate them. This needs to be part of your training and safety awareness.”

Masters said that the same awareness must apply to box trucks, trailers, and any equipment that would act like an impromptu airfoil. “Again, understand what the manufacturers’ recommendations are.”

Yet another aspect of wind damage has little to do with the vehicles themselves and more about the environment around them. “If you have hundreds of vehicles parked at a staging site next to a building that, for example, has a flat roof with a tar and gravel overlay, what happens when the wind gets over 60 miles-per-hour? That all comes off and breaks out your vehicle glass,” Masters said. “That’s hundreds of vehicles you can’t use because they don’t have windows.”

Staging and storage of vehicles and equipment were of particular concern for Lubas. Can you get to them in the worst of the storm, or will they be isolated from you or prone to floods and rendered inaccessible? “If you have all your emergency assets in the facility adjacent to the river and you have a hurricane offshore, you’re going to be flooded out. All that stuff has to be moved.” Plus, a crew that must go out to the streets at the worst of times will not have the luxury of thinking through what equipment is best at which time? All this must be determined in advance.

“It’s important to have this information in detail,” Lubas added. “We do operational testing (on equipment) to make sure it functions properly prior to storm seasons, and that fluid levels are correct. Where this equipment is concerned, specifics like horsepower, gallons-per-minute pumped, number of lumens of light produced, type of fuel used, and the locations where this equipment is stored; you should have the detail of these audits close at hand.”

3Prepare-For-Storms.jpgAnd not just of the things your fleet has, but of the things it might need and you would have to lease. Lubas said that having a memorandum of understanding in place could be crucial if – as was witnessed after Superstorm Sandy – necessary supply chains are disrupted. “You have a rental agreement for emergency generators…$5,000 a month. Someone else who is impacted by the storm says, ‘I’ll give you $10,000.’ More than likely, that vendor will take the $10,000 unless the contract stipulates that you have first right of refusal.”

Masters said that there are things every fleet manager should get to know: the areas that are most prone to flooding; the best media outlets from which to get consistent weather information on a regular basis, not just when the weather is bad; and how to get in communication with your state’s emergency operations offices. They are invaluable when it comes to knowing about road closures and situations that might precipitate road closures.

And even though mobile telecommunications are ubiquitous in this day and age, they’re also your friend in a storm. Keep your phones close and charged.

When You Are Not Suited To Be In The Storm - The emergency plan is set. The equipment is safe, secure, and operational. The training has been completed. There is one inextricable component to this which does not get nearly enough discussion. Is the driver emotionally equipped to deal with it?

“You need to have a written protocol that lays out the requirements of the job so that (these determinations are) more objective and less subjective,” said Masters. “This would be a ‘fitness for duty protocol’ that states that the ability to handle stress and make good judgments under pressure is a key requisite of the position.”

Human nature, however, tends to push the individual to believe they can handle more than they might really be able to cope with. This is not the time for said person to learn they are psychologically and literally in over their head. Fitness for duty can be determined during the yearly review. This, however, will leave the fleet manager to the task of explaining why such a driver will not be called upon in these events. How does one go about making it strictly a part of the job and not perceived as an unrelated sort of discrimination?

Masters suggested a “secondary signoff” protocol. “The fleet manager needs to engage someone in the safety department as a confirmation, or a safety valve. One person lays out what the scope and capability of these drivers must be. The other person reviews, and either will agree to them or deny, which establishes greater impartiality. It’s no longer a subjective thing: one person versus another.”

Masters also said that, in most cases, the individual who is unfit for such duty usually knows it internally anyhow. “There are plenty of things that need to be done at home base, and they will probably be grateful that they were refused for that particular task.”

Even if they are fit to brave the worst weather, are they legal? “An agency may not have enough drivers with commercial driver’s licenses,” Lubas said. “And if the drivers who have them cannot make it in, who will drive? There may not be the same level of police scrutiny in such cases, but you really don’t want non-certified drivers out there in emergencies.”

Ideally, no one will have to be in such a dangerous position as a driver. However, thinking things through – preparing before the storm comes – is the best way to get through it, whether you have to be out in it or not.

4Prepare-For-Storms.jpgThe Last Place To Be In A Storm - When asked what ages-old piece of advice he’d have stricken from the record, Meteorological Journalist Bob Henson responded with another question. “How often, when you’re coming into a big thunderstorm, possibly with hail, do you see people just park in an underpass?”

Henson said there are two drawbacks to stopping dead in an underpass. The first is that a small group of drivers have now impeded the road for everyone, leaving them exposed to the elements, and making a possibly necessary reverse-and-retreat much more difficult. “There’s also some funneling of wind current under there, although different sections of underpass will be affected in different ways. It is generally not a safe place to be.”

If you must park, Henson said, the best thing to do is park on the shoulder and wait it out. Yes, this might leave the vehicle exposed to possibly damaging hail or other debris flying around, but it leaves the road clear if an escape route is needed.

Reduce your speed. Driving fast in the rain can contribute to hydroplaning and loss of control. Leave more space between you and the vehicle in front should quick braking be necessary. Also keep an eye out for, and steer clear of, large vehicles that will throw backsplash at you.

Don’t drive through fast flowing water as you have no way of judging how strong the current is.

In the event your vehicle becomes submerged, the average vehicle should stay afloat 30 to 60 seconds. Until you are prepared to escape (and this might sound counterintuitive), stay buckled in your seat. An underwater vehicle has no predictability, and you could hit your head and pass out if the car moves in a sudden way. Staying awake and lucid is imperative. Immediately unlock the doors. Power accessories will generally remain functional for a couple of minutes. Unbuckle your seat belt when you are ready to escape, open windows, and swim to safety. If your windows will not open, you will need to try to kick out a window. Remember that, as difficult as it might be to kick this out on land, it will be more so under water pressure.

It is best to avoid such predicaments altogether. If you cannot judge how deep the water is, or how fast it is flowing, do not get near it. Safely back away and make an emergency phone call if you are able.