Examining Fleet's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Examining Fleet's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Donald Dunphy
October 2020

This time last year, no one knew a thing about coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. In less than twelve months, this has come to redefine nearly everything we do, especially fleet operations.
Where were you when you first heard the term COVID-19? When was the first time you thought about how it might impact your organization? Did your emergency response plans adequately cover pandemic requirements? On Wednesday morning, September 16, the third day of NAFA's Virtual I&E, moderator Matthew Betz, Expert - Fleet Optimization at DTE Energy, asked these questions and more to esteemed fleet leaders during the Fleet Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic presentation.
Betz was joined with Kathy Wellik, CAFM, Director, Transportation Services at Iowa State University; Robert Martinez, Deputy Commissioner at City of New York Police Department; Ruth Alfson, CAFM, Fleet Manager at the City of Cincinnati; and Bryan Flansburg, CAFM, Location Manager at First Student School Buses.

Where Were You When It Began?

For these fleet leaders, the oncoming pandemic either arrived on their radar early with little fanfare or exploded into the public consciousness with a speed that was difficult to get a grasp on. "I was just becoming aware of COVID-19 in February before a trip," said Wellik. "Coming home, the situation was becoming more and more apparent, but you're looking around in the airport and public spaces, and no one is wearing a mask. I have immuno-compromised family members, and I worried whether I was bringing this virus back to them."
"I was at home in late-December and I saw it on the news, that it had popped up in China," said Alfson. She, like most, recalled the avian bird flu pandemic from the late-1990s, the widespread use of masks in Asia due to it, and how that distance seemed like a buffer for the United States. "Boy, was I wrong," she exclaimed.
Much like Alfson, Flansburg saw the news reports and did not give it much further thought. By March 2020, things had changed. His company was in deep discussions with schools that First Student serve, developing plans to deal with the virus, including ancillary services in-person schooling provides: breakfasts, lunches, and school supplies. If students had to stay home, how would these needs be addressed?

The Right Plan (For Now)

For Martinez, this was an unprecedented emergency. The NYPD is prepared for nearly any emergency, from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to the unprecedented damage from Superstorm Sandy. But unlike annual contingencies for influenza, COVID-19 posed a highly virulent and nearly unforeseeable challenge. By the second week of March, the sick were doubling, then tripling, daily. By the end of March, over 4,000 employees were out of work and 47 fatalities had occurred.
NYPD's response had to be drastic: cutting the in-person workforce by half and making at-home work mandatory for anyone over 60 years old. What helped facilitate the cut was New York City's directive to "go dark" and close down all non-essential businesses. This decreased the need for patrols, resulting in a 40% decrease in crashes. But it also left large areas of the city vulnerable to crime.
Employee care was the top priority for Wellik. Iowa State University was shut down, but work had to continue in the facilities. Wellik said that several stressors complicated matters, outside of the virus itself and fear of the unknown. Staff was allowed flexible work hours and were provided two masks each for onsite operations. For employees whose primary work was halted, options were provided to do other work on the campus rather than having them be furloughed. Above all, Wellik said, the key was communication, allowing people to voice their concerns, and readily addressing these.
Flansburg noted First Student's Start Safe program which outlines safety protocols such as face coverings, social distancing, and stringent bus disinfection. The bus company collaborated with various government agencies, healthcare organizations, and bus manufacturers to test, develop, and implement new safety and operating procedures, one being excluding seats near the driver to be occupied by students.
Alfson stated that because the City of Cincinnati was an essential service, vehicles had to be in constant use 24-7, meaning the mechanics working on them were likewise always on-call. While not a perfect match for a pandemic "war room" scenario, the City of Cincinnati utilized its winter weather/riot planning with specific adaptations. This helped them navigate the unknown with more assurance.
However, with the City not having the expected revenue from its tax base - due to shutdowns, closure, and lost consumer transactions - an early retirement buyout was put into place. Many of Alfson's senior mechanics and staff took advantage of the offer, and a staff shortage is impending. There's no guarantee that they will be able to fill all of those positions.


Iowa State University's most difficult situation was the delay of the vehicle auction it participates in with the state department of transportation. To work around this, Wellik pivoted to new opportunities like partnering with Govdeals.com, making changes to their auction protocols and even developing ISU's own auction site.
Like Alfson, Wellik believes ISU's emergency plan worked well, even if it was not specific to pandemic preparedness. A quick response, the ability to shift to work-from-home for those who could, and the maintenance of a safe environment for those who could not avoid the facility occurred with minimal wrangling.
She said that there will be adjustments, chief among their being the potential for a country-disrupting pandemic is no longer an abstract concept. Additional cleaning efforts are to be marshaled if such a need arises again. Also, training recommendations and a degree of succession planning are necessary to fill in gaps left by emergencies, employees are to be cross-trained to further bolster skills that keep them from being furloughed, and of course, the suggestion box is waiting. Staff and customer feedback and ideas are freely welcomed.
Martinez noted that NYPD had to make near Draconian cuts to maintain equilibrium. Not only are there fewer police officers on patrol, but fleet functions and service hours have been reduced; projects, promotions, and hiring are all on-hold; and the potential of 22,000 lay-offs is very real. He noted, the entire office of New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio, including the Mayor himself, will take a one-week furlough soon. Martinez expects this will be mandatory for himself as well.

Conclusions and Take-Aways

The pandemic is ongoing. Despite sometimes divisive reporting that minimizes its present effects, fleet managers must face this reality daily. Flansburg suggested that this will inevitably provoke rethinking the current vehicle's right-sizing model. Whereas fleets used to look for vehicles that performed its specific utility with the smallest footprint necessary, this crisis opened up needs for vehicles with more flexibility. Rather than a vehicle type that specialized in one or two functions, fleets may be looking toward more multipurpose options.
What are the dominant actions these fleet professionals say are crucial to keeping fleets viable? Flansburg insists that "communication, communication, communication is key."
Wellik said that training and supporting commercial-driver's-licensed employees is crucial because those lost drivers aren't easily replaced.
Alfson, Martinez, and Matt Betz each voiced different aspects of a singular need: unity. For Alfson, that means keeping an open mind to ideas, getting buy-in from the bottom and the top, and working together gets things accomplished.
Betz echoed the concept, adding that there needs to be alignment between fleet goals and the organization's overall goals, essentially getting everyone pointed in the same direction and ready to march. Otherwise, when chaos occurs, departments find themselves at odds with each other.
And Martinez offered a hopeful thought, stating that in times of such great need, people need to put aside all the differences that divide us, at every personal and professional level. He noted that things work best when we all work together.