By Don Dunphy
The national coronavirus crisis is affecting fleets in unique ways, principally from being labeled essential to being temporarily shut down. FLEXY winner Brad Smith, Fleet Maintenance Supervisor for Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, CO manages an absolutely essential fleet.
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NAFA caught up with Brad, winner for Excellence in Public Fleet or Mobility Management, to dig deeper into the challenges of the moment which make firefighting administration even more challenging.
Rolling with the Changes
“Fire fleets have situations where some houses contain several functions and multiple assets running out of one place,” Smith explains. “The trucks stay at the station and crews are rotated every 48 hours, so we ensure that quality pass-on is done between the shifts. Lingering non-safety issues are monitored. I have currently halted all non-essential shop activity to include preventive maintenance actions that are not more than 500 miles or 30 days overdue. The goal of that is to keep as many reserve firefighting apparatuses at the ready in the event of major breakdowns and supply chain issues. We have six reserve apparatus with one currently in service.”
The long-term effects of this will be a backlog of small repairs and preventive maintenance steps. Smith says, “I am considering moving to an overnight shift where call volume drops in order to accommodate doing PMs overnight.” Other changes include closing any training that brings more than one firehouse together. In Poudre Fire’s shop, the team rotates staff to have 16 hours of coverage five days per week, keeping a minimal number of people in the shop space at any time.
Even with necessary changes, Smith says, “Poudre Fire is currently doing great. We have some (COVID-19) cases locally but have not yet experienced a massive uptick in call volume. With our fleet in such a great place, I can distance staff and work, rotating schedules to keep the ship afloat.”
When asked how much of Poudre Fire’s emergency planning was already in place as a general preparedness protocol, Smith says it includes fuel, lubricants and parts supply chain possibilities, as well as contingencies for reserve apparatus availability in the event of a “system crash.”
Things change quickly. “Last Thursday, I evaluated the plan, communicated it, and continued my own plans to go on vacation,” Smith says. “As the situation developed, I cancelled my vacation and returned to work bringing the fleet services system up to a ‘response’ posture rather than a ‘maintain’ posture.” Smith advises other fleets to evaluate constantly. “Make yourself accountable for following through whenever you depend on others for service and supplies. Keep your people as informed as possible, know what information to hold back to not create panic and what information to share so that their jobs can be done well.”
FLEXY: Good Data Leads to Best Practices
Hard work and overcoming daunting challenges led to the efforts that won Smith and Poudre Fire the 2020 FLEXY. For starters, Smith had to build a new database up from scratch. “What a heavy lift this was,” Smith says. “When I arrived at my job, I asked a lot of questions about process and data. I got a lot of information handed to me in word documents and Excel spreadsheets.”
Worse, the data was coming from unreliable sources. “We looked at four options for vendor supplied fleet software solutions and went with what we thought was best. As you may know, new databases require historical information to be hand-keyed or imported. All my vehicles were hand-keyed due to lack of information.” Likewise, vehicle repair history was brought in through hand-keyed input and driver data was both imported and hand-keyed in. “Parts inventory was huge,” Smith admits. “We have about $109,000 in inventory, and we hand-keyed all those parts into the system.”
If You’re Looking for Problems, You’ll Always Find Them
What did the team learn once the more-thorough database was in place? Hidden and longstanding problems were revealed. “We also had to be careful not to have a ‘ready, fire, aim’ reaction to the data,” Smith says. “As the data is still only one year old, we continue to track the glide path of things like fuel use, cost-per-mile, accident costs and frequency, right down to drivers doing daily required inspections on the apparatus. Initially this appeared atrocious, trended up, then back down again, so we are working diligently on this, to fulfill the requirement and because it gives us more of a predictive maintenance model that I am reaching toward.”
Leadership was included in daily reviews for accountability and the team immediately saw problems with efficiencies in the shop. For Smith, training is the best strategy to improve and increase efficiencies. “(We have a) trust and responsibility not only to the taxpayer but to each other.”
The efficiency report is distributed on a weekly basis and any significant deviations are addressed as soon as possible. “I ask the technician what affected their performance this week,” Smith says. “This gives me an opportunity to see if efficiency declined, if there were issues with scheduling, or if outside influences affected results.” To Smith’s point, if you’re looking for problems, you will always find them. That triggers the solutions.
Tackling Hidden, Unnecessary Costs
The wealth of data flow, facilitated an analysis and reckoning for outside costs on things such as fuel and washer fluid, resulting in securing discounts on these products. Further, data analysis helped create vehicle selection criteria that identifies equipment that does not require premium-grade fuel, leveraging the most affordable fuels available without risking warrantees.
Smith says, “When I ran my first fuel report, I saw an overwhelming amount of premium-grade fuel going into the staff vehicle fleet.” Fleet drivers were buying oil and washer fluid at the filling station rather than using what was at home base. “A stop order was issued: no more premium fuel. We also insisted that folks should come to the shop for consumable supplies as much as possible.”
Smith also conducted an analysis on the purchase of new apparatus based on a lifecycle cost analysis of repair data, longevity studies, and costs-per-mile. Smith says, “I took a look at what I saw in August’s reports, sat with our purchasing chief, and determined that based on the cost-per-mile that I could currently see, using four years of repair history and a 10,000 mile fuel GPM measurement, we could go to a 12-13 year lifespan on our apparatus and a nine-year lifespan on our staff fleet vehicles.”
This resulted in a dramatic swing from a budget poised to go $1M in the red to $1M in the black by 2025. The Poudre Fire fleet team continues to refine process and purchasing habits to realize savings. “Our $1.5M operations-and-maintenance budget last year had a $65K underspend,” Smith says. “We plan on doing better this year, but we also plan to increase the service level to our customers.” Leveraging data has been a powerful tool in identifying gaps, inefficiencies and hidden costs.
Smith says, “The firefighting apparatus replacement scheme produced the largest return in a short amount of time. Additionally, I looked at our parts and supplies vendor partners to give us an updated pricing bid in order to keep them honest and to help them understand that even long-standing relationships need to be evaluated. We proved an underspend at the end of the year in operations and maintenance, largely due to pricing out our vendors and finding the very best ROI and value while also keeping the longevity and quality of our maintenance in mind.”
Changing Minds and Getting Buy-In
“Tradition drives the fire service,” Smith says. This can become an obstacle when change is required as teams typically resist change and a lack of consensus complicates and compromises change management. “Some thought that things were okay just as they were, including my immediate staff. I always try to hear how they think things are fine, and then present my data to them, either to back that up or dispute it. I also gave a class to the entire department on what things I was looking for on the daily and weekly checks,” Smith says. “We are continuing that program by recording quarterly videos that address new trends, communicating what we know, and congratulating those doing great work.”
To keep the team on the same page in implementing change, Smith held an annual contest to see which station could produce the best-looking truck. Smith admits that not everyone embraced the competition, he is going to continue and everyone will benefit from higher-maintained equipment.
Credit Where It’s Due
Changing minds and getting buy-in from stakeholders is a continual process. Smith recognizes the value of his full team, each a vital part in making change happen. “My boss, Ryan McLean, had a vision to create a fleet services division that the department has never had in its 40-year history (before 1980 they were part of the City of Fort Collins operations),” Smith says. “Ryan gave me the freedom and latitude to think differently and bring some of my fleet experience from 20 years in the Army and a few years of larger public fleets.”
Smith concludes, “My team has been a critical part of this. They don’t always agree with me, but they do follow where I lead, they offer me advice when I get out in left field and they are willing to do the hard things in order to get us in a better place.”