By Christian P. Koop
I recently had the good fortune of attending two premier trade shows: the National Truck and Equipment (NTEA) Work Truck Show and the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), which are both held at the same venue, the relatively new convention center in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. I say good fortune because I had never been to the NTEA show and it had been many years since I had been to FDIC. Both shows were very impressive in their own right and by the obvious fact that they were well organized and sponsored. Both offered a wide array of training classes and symposiums. They were well attended and both ran like well-oiled machines. Kudos are in order to the folks behind the scenes who prepare and organize these huge events.
One of the conference sessions I attended at the NTEA show was a two-day fleet management symposium. The symposium was presented by Kelley Walker and was very informative. The main focus was about managing the modern shop with an emphasis on reducing capital and operating budgets in the fleet and on improving technician productivity both in the shop and field while incorporating the latest technologies such as vehicle GPS and telematics. Long-haul trucking is at least 10 years ahead of most other fleet operations in this area.
Walker pointed out that for a fleet vehicle to be efficient, it must be “matched to the application, productive, efficient to operate, cost-effective, safe, user-friendly, regulatory-compliant, and reasonably priced.” This brings me to what this article is about-responsible fleet management is a philosophy that needs to start when new apparatus are specified with the idea that if the units are matched properly to the applications, they will be more cost-effective to operate. It is about constantly looking for ways to cut costs and improving efficiency in the modern shop. It needs to involve everyone in the organization, and if everyone buys into it, you can ultimately reduce operating cost, improve quality, and still make gains in overall organization efficiency-including the shop. Although Walker was not speaking directly about emergency response vehicles, this rationale can be applied to these vehicles as well.
If you have been around this field for a while, you can probably think of some vehicles you’ve had or possibly still have in your fleet that don’t meet some or even any of these vital requirements. If your fleet is not matched properly to the application, it is overloaded, or the duty cycle is too severe for its design, it will require extremely high levels of maintenance and repairs to keep it operational. I have seen this happen, and sometimes critics blame the vehicle and manufacturer. But, the reality is that it may not have been specified properly for the application.
To further express my point, here is an analogy by Alan Brunacini, retired chief of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department: “Sending a fire apparatus on a medical call is like delivering flowers with a cement truck.” Unfortunately, most of us can relate or recall having some of these vehicles in our fleet. Some of these units are labeled lemons, and although some of them may very well have been true lemons, others were just not properly specified for the application. I attribute some of my gray hair to vehicles that fall into this category.
Simplicity Saves Money
I sometimes affectionately reference an old acronym, KISS, which stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” However, I have slightly modified it to help us get by in this tougher economy to KISSSM, pronounced kisum, which simply means “Keep It Simple, Stupid, and Save Money.” Responsible fleet management will help today’s fleet managers and maintenance supervisors meet the objectives and goals of those faced with today’s tight budgets and still deliver the service needed to keep the fleet fully operational.
Standardize Where Possible
Responsible fleet management must start with sound specifications that take into account many factors. Now, this article is not by any means about writing specifications. However, I would like to mention a few important points that I think are sometimes forgotten in the process.
Particularly now when most fleets, whether large or small, have been impacted by serious budget cuts, looking for areas to realize cost savings and improved efficiencies is more important than ever before. Whether the specifications are strictly technical in nature, functional, performance-based, or a combination, the ultimate goal is to produce a vehicle that is best suited to the application and one that will provide a long, reliable, trouble-free life that is economical to maintain.
Well-written specifications should produce a vehicle that will provide reliable service with minimal problems, barring any manufacturing defects that can cause chronic long-term maintenance issues that will create excessive downtime and ultimately negatively impact the bottom line. Fleet managers today should seriously strive for standardization of the fleet wherever possible.
Fleet standardization will have a positive impact in the parts department by reducing the quantity of parts you stock and the physical space required to store them. It can give you greater negotiation power with parts suppliers, and your parts department can cut down on the time spent handling parts to use that time more productively in other areas of the operation. Technicians will not require as much training, and they will become more proficient in diagnosis as well as repairs because they can focus on fewer brands. Additionally, you won’t have to deal with as many manufacturers and people, giving you more time to focus your energy on other important fleet issues and concerns.
For many of us in this industry, we have long known that the two main drivers of all fleet costs have been fuel and tires, respectively. Walker pointed out that the number one driver of all fleet costs is really the number of units in service. Equipment use rate is one of the references he made, and if you have equipment that is sitting around not being used, it is probably costing you money in one way or another. Whether the organization you work for is private or publicly funded, underused equipment will impact your organization in different ways financially, but it will end up costing more money to keep it around longer rather than disposing of it sooner.
Keep in mind that equipment that sits around unused will deteriorate and lose considerable value-particularly if it sits out in the weather. The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” rings true not only for our human bodies but also for equipment sitting around not being used. Whether it is an over-the-road tractor that belongs to a private trucking company or a pumper that belongs to a government agency that is no longer using it because it has been retired, it will affect your organization’s bottom line in one way or another in the long run.
Another area Walker touched on was improving technician efficiency on the shop floor. He mentioned the three-foot rule that states if a technician is more than three feet from the job he is not being productive. Think about how much time technicians lose going back and forth from their assigned jobs to the parts department. Stopping along the way to chat with coworkers about anything not job-related is not productive, so if you bring parts to the technicians, you can greatly improve in this area. This is something our shop is currently working to incorporate whenever possible. If you look hard and think about your operation, you will find other areas where you can improve technician efficiency.
For example, our shop recently installed concentrated windshield washer fluid in 55-gallon drums on the shop floor with a mixing attachment connected to the water line that automatically mixes the solution with water at the push of a button right there at close proximity to the technicians. Not only does it save over the cost of the smaller concentrated containers we used to stock, it also cuts down on the time the technicians lost walking to the stock room to get washer fluid.
For field technicians, the use of GPS and geo-fencing will help keep them honest and will go a long way toward improving their productivity. Walker indicated that there are a number of companies offering these services and that their fees should fall between $20 and $30 per month. If your organization decides to go this route, do your homework by researching different service providers and picking one that best suits your organization’s needs. Also remember the importance of properly testing anything new before deciding to purchase and place into service.
If you are looking for software solutions, remember to involve everyone who will be using it prior to involving the folks from IT. Walker states that failing to follow this rule results in 70 percent of these projects failing. Something deeply ingrained into my training and hammered into my psyche when I was starting out as a young technician was “Test, don’t guess.” This can be applied to many areas of fleet management and maintenance.
If you take a hard look at your operation for ways to either improve shop efficiencies or cut costs, you will find them. I am sure most of you reading this are keenly aware that the price of everything used in fleet maintenance has skyrocketed during the past several years. Tires, in particular, have more than doubled in price depending on contracts and specific sizes. Our shop looked into using recaps for the rear tires on our fleet and began testing the Bridgestone BRM tread produced by Bandag. Ultimately, we found significant savings can be realized by using recaps in place of new tires on the rear axle. In a nutshell, recaps lasted 2.5 times longer over the mileage of a new tire at approximately a third of the price. Not only do we save dollars over the price of a new tire, we also keep the truck in service longer before having to bring the unit back to the shop to replace tires. To put these figures into a mileage perspective, the new tires lasted, on average, approximately 10,000 miles at 4⁄32 inches of tread remaining consistently across the fleet for a specific vehicle type and tire size. Testing of four sister trucks indicated that the recaps lasted approximately 24,000 miles with 6⁄32 inches of tread remaining.
Significant savings can be realized, but remember that testing is extremely important as recap compounds vary and are far from being created equal. We actually placed another brand recap into use and found that particular brand to last only 6,000 to 8,000 miles on average. Even though these recaps were priced at about 1⁄4 the price of a new tire, there were no savings to be realized because the out-of-service time coupled with the labor hours spent on more frequent tire changes negated any cost reductions.
Responsible fleet management needs to start with the equipment specifications but, ultimately, everyone should be involved. I think it is incumbent on everyone involved in the specifications and equipment purchase process to strive for fleet standardization. It can be a huge benefit to the entire organization and will ultimately impact the bottom line positively. Take a hard look at your operation, and you should be able to find ways to cut costs, still improve quality, and deliver the service needed to keep your fleet rolling. Finally, don’t forget the true meaning of KISS and KISSSM, because they, too, will go a long ways toward improving your bottom line.
CHRISTIAN P. KOOP is the fleet manager for the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Department. He has been involved in the repair and maintenance of autos, heavy equipment, and emergency response vehicles for the past 35 years. He has an associate degree from Central Texas College and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Barry University and has taken course work in basic and digital electronics. He is an ASE-certified master auto/heavy truck technician and master EVT apparatus and ambulance technician. He is a member of the board of directors of EVTCC and FFMA and a technical committee member for NFPA 1071, Standard for Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications.