By Mark Boada, Executive Editor
Only two months after being named fleet manager for the City of Cincinnati in January, Ruth Alfson, CAFM was faced with managing the fleet’s 2,500 vehicles and 1,000 additional units of small equipment in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. A nearly 30-year veteran of the industry and president of NAFA Fleet Management Association from 2015 to 2017, Ms. Alfson had seen her share of crises, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to three hurricanes while she was fleet manager for Seminole County, Florida.
Fleet Management Weekly called to interview Ms. Alfson last Tuesday, March 31, as the city’s mayor announced furloughs of 1,700 city employees, more than 20 percent of its workforce, in anticipation of a major shortfall in revenues caused by the virus. At the time, the illness hadn’t hit Ohio or the city with the fury it had already hit in other areas, but, as she explained, the city was trying to prepare for the worst by applying lessons learned from New York.
What’s it like to have to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic so soon after being named fleet manager for the city?
It’s busy, very busy. This is harder than what I experienced with 9/11 and with hurricanes, and it’s going to get harder. I have made remarks to people that when 9/11 happened, it was easier, at least for me, to manage and get past the events of 9/11 than is for this pandemic, because 9/11 was one incidence, and we had the time to recover afterwards. With the coronavirus, it’s on-going, it’s hitting different cities at different paces, and it’s not looking like it’s going to stop any time soon.
I was with Seminole County Florida then. There, we also had three hurricanes hit our county within six weeks and even that was easier to go through and get through than this.
What kinds of vehicles are your responsibility?
Basically, everything except transit: police, fire, ambulances, parks, public works, sanitation and administration, and all types of vehicles, from sedans to heavy-duty trucks.
Was the fleet in good operational condition when you came in?
Yes, it was in very good shape. Every fleet has the same basic tasks – you have a vehicle and you have to maintain and fix it. The challenge I faced was trying to get to know all the 67 people in my department, the procedures in place and the culture behind them. Before COVID-19, my focus was on tweaking some of our practices. One is how we handle recycling vehicle batteries, and another was reviewing how repair technicians were assigned to which shops. If I have someone working in a light duty vehicle shop but they have a lot of heavy-duty vehicle experience, we’re thinking of switching people around to better utilize their skill set.
Have there been furloughs in your department?
No. We have 60 repair supervisors and mechanics in 15 shops, the rest are in department administration, and none have been furloughed. There are other departments that have experienced furloughs because they aren’t considered essential. Fleet is considered essential.
Are you working from home?
No, I am deemed mission critical and I am required to report to the office every day.
Ohio isn’t the hardest hit state yet. How are things in Cincinnati?
We haven’t been hit hard yet, and no one in the fleet department have been infected. But we are starting to see it ramp up, and the city is being very proactive. When this whole thing came down, we decided immediately to practice social distancing. So, we had to figure out a way to have our people here to work on vehicles yet limit their exposure to others.
So, what we came up with is a four-hour on, four-hour off workday. They work four hours and then they are home, and they’re paid for eight; but for the rest of those four hours off that they’re paid for being on call, so if we have an emergency, we can call them back in. That was the only way we could keep the same type of coverage in all of our garages but have social distancing be in place.
So, you’re losing productivity in your shops, right?
Yes, but with the entire city going on a social distancing schedule, there are departments within the city that may not be working at all because they’re not considered essential. For example, the parks department is very limited on employees right now. A lot of them have been practicing social distancing or have been furloughed, which means those vehicles aren’t being used, which means, of course, they’re not coming in to be maintained. However, if we find a bunch of parks vehicles that are idle and need maintenance, our guys will go and get them. It’s working out very well for us right now, even with the limited hours in the shops, because other departments are not working and that kind of balances everything out.
So, with these vehicles, are you doing maintenance ahead of schedule, on schedule or behind schedule?
It depends on the department. Some departments are notoriously behind, so this gives us an opportunity to get them caught up. Some departments are great at bringing their vehicles in on time, so we’re taking a look and seeing if something is due relatively soon. So, it really depends on the department.
So, your department’ s workload has increased in part because you’re spending so much time now trying to identify which vehicles are idle and which of them need maintenance.
Are you using your own mechanics to get the vehicles?
Do they have to go far?
No, not really.
Or are the vehicles you service parked where the shops are?
No, they’re not necessarily parked where our shops are. But most of our locations in the city are relatively easy to get to in a short amount of time. So, it’s really advantageous to send our mechanics, especially if the department has a lot of people laid off. So, we send out our mechanics, they bring in the vehicle, get it PM’d and take it back.
I imagine that your mechanics are working very hard to get all this work done on their reduced hours.
My guys are really doing what they need to do. I’ve been fortunate to come into a situation where the people in fleet genuinely want to go a great job for the city, and they are doing what they can do to make sure that the city stays up and running. They’re working just as hard as before, and I have some guys who are working even harder. They know that fleet keeps the city running. They know that if the fire or the police don’t have the vehicles they need, everything breaks down.
What are you doing to keep your mechanics safe when they’re on the job?
First, all our mechanics are mandated to wear gloves, and we’ve provided them all with hand sanitizer. Second, we’ve told them not to touch a vehicle that hasn’t been sanitized. We have large enough facilities that we don’t have people working on top of each other, and because we have people working part-time, it’s relatively easy for them to maintain their social distancing.
Then, because the virus can live for extended periods of time on some surfaces, we’re only picking vehicles that haven’t been driven for at least one or two weeks, which we can determine by the refueling records. And when the fire and police department bring vehicles in for service, they have been instructed that they have to sanitize the vehicles before they give it to the fleet employee. If they haven’t, we don’t work on the vehicle.
Are there any other things your department is doing to cope with the pandemic that you haven’t done before?
We’re trying to think of creative ways to use what we have in order to support other mission-critical departments.
Within the normal course of fleet business, you always have vehicles that you’re buying and vehicles that you’re de-commissioning into the sale lot to sell. So, we took two ambulances out of the sale lot and made them available in case we have to transport more people from our homeless community who are positive for the virus. And we also took a police car that has a plastic seat in the back and still had a divider and we purposed that the same we, so we could use it to transport somebody positive in our homeless community to the facility where they can be taken care of.
Thank you for taking the time to let your fleet colleagues in fleet how you’re coping. Stay healthy and safe.
Thank you. You too.