How Yale University’s Fleet Is Innovating During COVID-19 Challenges

How Yale University’s Fleet Is Innovating During COVID-19 Challenges

By Donald Dunphy

April 2020

When it comes to an unprecedented challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all learning on the fly, on the job. NAFA recently asked members to assess where they stand in their work and life following the first month of physical distancing.
Ronald S. Gitelman, CAFM, is the Senior Fleet Administrator for Yale University and faces very unique challenges, but never had a plan for students who are not allowed on campus as courses have shifted entirely online.
Gitelman, like many other fleet professionals, was well prepared for nearly every situation one could imagine, but he hadn’t imagined this. He has learned a lot during the past few weeks -- about Yale’s policies, preparedness, and staff -- that will affect his operations going forward.
He is candid and enlightening and reflects the sentiments of fleet professionals globally.

What have you learned from your team’s response over the past couple of weeks?
I have learned that I have a team that rises to the occasion.  We have a small fleet management team, and we all worked in tandem even though we are not in the office.  Instead of panicking in a situation, we focused on the problem and resolved and communicated.  Fleet managers need to trust their teams. If they can’t trust them, then situations like this will break them.  A micromanager may not be able to delegate when delegation is required.  A micromanager can be so hands-on the team doesn’t know how to proceed.  We have built a solid fleet team and it has shown through the process. 
My director trusts me to do what I need to, but also to escalate those things that need escalation.  In turn, I trust my direct report to do what I direct and ask questions if there isn’t clarity.  In a time when heroes arise, the fleet needs the whole team to be heroic and not just individuals trying to be the only hero.

What areas of your emergency plan did you need to adapt to meet the COVID-19 challenge?
Our former emergency plans revolved around weather challenges with winter weather and some coastal storms.  Now we must not only adapt to COVID-19 but be prepared for any other virus challenges that may come our way.  We will have to look at how we run our fleet with a fresh approach.  We run a thin fleet with very few spare vehicles available.  
Our maintenance is heavily outsourced (approximately 90%).  In Connecticut, auto repair shops are considered essential but some of our contracted shops aren’t open at this time.  We have had to work with our shops to ensure emergency repairs can be done even if it entails the shop calling in a technician to perform the repairs. 
With most of our fleet not running due to a state and institution shutdown, we need to ensure those that are still in service or are needed can have the necessary repairs done.  If the vehicle needs a repair, the shops are asked to check whether preventive maintenance (PM) is due and if so, to go ahead and do the PM.  I expect we will be working on a new emergency plan to incorporate lessons learned and establish processes going forward.

What are lessons learned from the drastic nature of this pandemic which may translate to future emergency planning?

There are several.  First, unlike a storm with a definite timeline for preparation and maximum impact and rebuilding, a pathogen can cause a sudden and indeterminate impact on operations.  For some of my counterparts in the university sector, it has greatly impacted their operations and revenue sources. 
The issue with COVID-19 is no one knows the length of the impact from the shutdown to restart and then how it will impact the future.  So, university fleet managers will need to develop a plan not only to deal with operational factors but income and expenses. 
Also, emergency planning is not only operations and revenue/expenses but also how to prevent the spread of the virus and future viruses in the vehicles.  At Yale, we may have multiple drivers on a vehicle during a day.  In law enforcement you can have six or more people in the same vehicle during a 24-hour period which makes the process harder; how do you work to ensure the safety of the drivers?  You can wipe down the commonly touched surfaces, but you need to figure out what to do about airborne viruses (COVID-19 is also airborne).  A law enforcement fleet may not be able to quarantine a vehicle if suspected contamination occurs and one person can infect several others. 
When the “panic buying” is over and supplies return to normal, it may be in the fleet’s best interests to have masks and gloves available for all drivers in case another pandemic arises.  Supplies, as well as operations, are important. 
We also learned there needs to be better coordination between users and fleet.  At Yale, we have many departments using vehicles and while we have centralized many fleet operations, some are decentralized which makes communication during a pandemic situation difficult at best.  A clear line of communication is needed. 
Also, the current fleet managers are now at an advantage of having gone through this. So, a plan can be prepared for the future while leaving room for changes with new situations that may arise. Many have emergency plans for all kinds of situations, but it seems pandemics are not one of them.  The plans set in place now will be the guideline for the future.

How do you keep your team engaged in the present needs, especially when old habits creep back in? How do you keep them on-point and effective in this new normal?
We are entirely remote.  This is tough as we are all dealing with our own personal situations.  With schools closed, we are home with our kids who are doing remote learning.  If self-quarantine is required due to exposure, we have to be aware the person is self-quarantining and can develop symptoms quickly.  What is needed is better knowledge of the situation everyone is experiencing. 
Remote working has many distractions so follow-up on tasks may be needed.  The ability to communicate those things that are a priority is important. What is a priority to one may not be to another.  If something is a priority, communicate it.  Keeping in touch regularly is important -- not only to direct work but also to ensure they are doing well personally.  If another person is needed to step in, it should be done in a way that recognizes the issues the person is facing and should not be looked at as a black mark but rather a good thing to communicate the need for back-up. 
Communication with vendors regarding payments and the ability to be flexible are also important.  These times require flexibility as
circumstances can change more quickly than in other instances.

Explore More Articles...