What Fairfax Water’s Fleet is Doing to Manage the Pandemic Crisis

What Fairfax Water’s Fleet is Doing to Manage the Pandemic Crisis

By Donald Dunphy and Gena Galeros

April 2020

We caught up with NAFA Member Dale Collins, CAFM, to discuss how his team is dealing with COVID-19.  Utilities are, by their very nature, essential services, and with so many workers and citizens self-isolating at home, the need to keep such services running is that much greater. This puts pressure on fleets to strive for safety, keeping COVID-19 infection from affecting the team and sidelining crucial work. This also means having to make hard decisions should employees exhibit symptoms of the coronavirus. For Dale Collins, CAFM, Fleet Services Supervisor for Fairfax Water in Lorton, Virginia, there is no time to waste.

Collins explains that one of the first things the organization needed to address was containment, so a policy of “no outside people in” was mandated. “I got my teams together, had a meeting, stressed what we needed to do, how we needed to do it, how we were going to handle parts deliveries, how we were going to handle fuel deliveries because we can’t shut down,” Collins says. “We’ve got to have people in and out of the facility. So, we developed a plan within the guidelines we received from our executive team to keep us running, to keep us going.”  (Download Fairfax Water Fleet Vehicle Cleaning Tip Sheet)

Communications Strategy
Collins believes the biggest challenge that is affecting Fairfax Water right now is that of change management improvised on-the-fly. Principally, how must the team get people that work onsite and remotely on the same page? Establishing a communications strategy was challenged by connecting  those who can only work onsite with those who are working at home for the first time. Then for those who absolutely must be on the premises, what is required to keep illness at bay and mitigate the spread? Collins says, “We’ve got great communications, we’ve got a great continuity of operations plan. It’s just that the change of the everyday stuff is sometimes hard for people to deal with. Obviously what we do is ‘hands-on’ so we can’t do that remotely, but many of our folks in the organization can, which has been a big benefit.” Collins adds a degree of surface-level, temporary normalcy helps morale. “You can still tell that something is off. It is always on your mind, even though you know logically if you’re not around people that are infected, the likelihood of you coming down with it is very slim.”

Managing Uncertainty
Collins admits that it is impossible not to be a bit shaken by the uncertainty of the moment, yet it is his job as the fleet leader to project steadiness. “Try to keep a calm presence, that is my number-one job,” he says. “Keep everybody focused on the mission, reassure everything is going to be fine. Let’s do the things we know how to do and do them well. Let’s keep clean. Let’s keep our necessary distance between each other and do our jobs.”

Keeping It Clean
One of the biggest changes which all fleets will face is the liberty of just jumping into the vehicles and getting on with work without concern of the pathogens they or others might leave behind. “I tell all my guys when you get into a vehicle -- wherever you are going or to bring it in and do a service or repair -- you need to glove up, get in, get out, wipe it down and then de-glove, go wash your hands and then go to work,” Collins says matter-of-factly. “We are focusing on door handles, switch plates and our friend the steering wheel -- which collects everything. That’s our biggest focus. If we could get more of the disinfectant wipes, just the everyday cleaning material, it would be great.” Fortunately, Fairfax Water is not experiencing a severe shortage of such cleaning materials, a fortune which Collins counts as a blessing.

Physical Distancing
Collins recognizes how important it is to have so many vehicles at the ready to enhance Fairfax Water’s physical distancing efforts. If workers must go out in the field with a vehicle or a piece of equipment, Fairfax Water attempts as often as possible to send one person per vehicle versus the previously standard two people. “A lot of the departments that use to go out in crews of three-to-five people in a ‘crew truck’ now have just one person driving who will be responsible for keeping the inside of that vehicle clean,” Collins says. “There will be someone else in a small dump truck, someone else in a small pickup truck or standby truck, and so on. They’ve got to work nearby, but they don’t have to be right on top of one another. If they can travel in a dedicated vehicle, that’s their vehicle for the day so they can control their environment.

Increased Vigilance
During team discussions of their operations continuity plan, Collins stresses to vehicle end-users that he requires increased diligence on their behalf out in the field. “This would entail doing pre- and post-trip inspections, operational checks on the equipment and vehicles before they go offsite to help eliminate problems,” Collins explains. “It’s better to be done here than in the field to eliminate ‘self-inflicted wounds’ – i.e. damage.”
The team’s increased vigilance leads Collins to believe they are heading in the right direction. “Small things add up to huge problems if they go unchecked. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I think everyone’s increased awareness has helped. We aren’t facing the damage repair that we would normally see this time of year,” Collins says. He adds that had the COVID-19 complications occurred in the dead of winter -- typically Fairfax Water’s busiest season with frozen pipes and water main breaks – outcomes would have been far worse. A side effect of having more free time is that Fairfax Water’s fleet has the opportunity to catch up on some of the preventive maintenance which typically had to fall by the wayside. “We find time throughout the day to make sure we are disciplined in keeping the shop clean, our common areas clean, and ourselves clean. Crews are now doing a lot of flushing exercises, which is great because each person is off on their own and in their own environment taking care of their equipment. That also has helped us not experience lot of damage repairs,” Collins explains.

The current situation and increased awareness among Fairfax Water’s workers and stakeholders have fostered a more proactive working environment. “Everyone’s on alert for small problems and prepared to take care of them quickly,” Collins says. “The overall spirit is that of ‘hey, let me fix it before I leave, take care of it today, instead of leaving it for someone else,’ which has been very good. It shows me that our team can react when the need calls for it and be responsible and rise to the occasion. It has been great.”
Even as the daily news continues to be grim, Collins remains upbeat. He believes as the saying goes, “this too shall pass.”  He adds the commitment you put in when things seem at their worst will pay off later.  “We will all get through this,” Collins believes, “and we are going to be better and stronger after it.”

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