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Keeping the fleet rolling

City of Alcoa services manager uses communication, collaboration and creativity to handle maintenance issues.

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Doug Kaufman has been with Babcox Media since 1987 serving in a variety of editorial and publishing roles and titles. He is currently publisher of Engine Builder. He also has been editorial liaison between Babcox and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) for the past 12 years. Doug has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Bowling Green State University and remains a committed MAC enthusiast.

The City of Alcoa, Tenn., which sits at the Southern entrance of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, is a town that covers slightly less than 15 square miles and has a population just fewer than 8,500 residents. A planned community formed in 1919 by the aluminum company from which it takes its name, Alcoa is located in Blount County, a picturesque area known as “the peaceful side of the smokies.”

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But before you picture lazy, boring days snoozing in rocking chairs, realize this: the Great Smokey Mountains is the most heavily-traveled National Park in the country, with more than 9 million visitors annually. Residents work in a variety of business and recreation occupations—it’s very much a small town with a big city attitude.

Alcoa’s Fleet Support Services Department has responsibility for maintenance and repair of 266 on-highway and 59 off-highway vehicles, as well as 50 pieces of seasonal equipment. Keeping such numbers in the safety and services departments—including police, fire, power and street departments—rolling must take the efforts of a massive, well-orchestrated team, right?

Well-orchestrated, certainly. Massive? Not so much.

“We are a quick-in/quick-out repair facility with the technical ability to do almost any repair our vehicles need,” explains Steve Hillis, the city’s support services manager. “We do it with a warehouse manager, two mechanics and a working foreman. Our ongoing product mix supports and provides cost-effective and innovative programs and services reaching across the spectrum of our entire organization, from the city administration to all user departments and agencies, and on to our vendor providers as we support our community’s public good.”

The Alcoa fleet services division staff of three oversees those vehicles for a ratio of more than 100 per support staffer. According to Government Fleet magazine, that ratio is more typically 50 to one. Maintaining the expected level of excellence with a department this size requires a high degree of communication, collaboration and creativity, says Hillis.

In order to keep vehicles on the road, the city aggressively manages the preventive maintenance requirements of the fleet and keeps the average replacement age of the fleet as low as possible. “The fleet average age has risen to just over nine years but city-wide ranging assignment strategies have significantly reduced mileages,” notes Hillis. “Creating a four-day work week for most of our service fleet and our strong PM program has accounted for a significant amount of reduced fuel and mile consumption. This translates into greater MPG, more equipment up-time, less stand-by equipment or right-sizing equipment to the job and staff.”

The city has employed standardization strategies to target specific models and vehicle classes with increased maintenance and length of service efficiencies. Some leasing events and aggressive cooperative purchase initiatives have increased Alcoa’s buying power and its ability to re-fleet critical high-use units, Hillis explains.

When keeping a vehicle on the road involves a repair rather than maintenance, Hillis says his crew does not have a “parts swap” philosophy. “While we very much encourage individual creativity and judgment, we also maintain a sense of order and discipline,” he explains, particularly with diagnosing mysteries. “This has come into play when chasing difficult fuel or electrical problems where extra effort is needed. Cost-effective head scratching sprinkled with sound knowledge can be more effective than just creating an atmosphere of parts changing. The way my foreman says it, ‘Always weigh good money for bad.’”

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Hillis says the physical design of his new 10,500-sq.ft. shop took over five years of planning with countless employee teams coming together to strategize dollars and desires, mated with operational integrity. “Because of cross-training, our mechanics can easily switch from tires to welding to electrical, with both compression or spark-ignited preventive maintenance or troubleshooting issues. The foreman’s office doubles as our fleet library and unofficial lunch room for most anyone, including vendors and senior management, who may drop by.”

This open-door policy means communication with his “customers” is a critical part of the department’s success. “When we spend other departments’ money, we work hard not to surprise our client. We openly encourage all patterns of communication including orders/directives, inquiries, requests and responses through e-mail or over our radio or wireless networks,” Hillis says. And when money is an issue, personnel can openly debate questions of cost at all levels, both sides of the chain, and are quickly settled. This allows for quick and decisive action with few surprises and high trust.

Technology plays a huge role in the fleet’s success as well, Hillis also points out.

“Everyone in Fleet Support Services is networked. Each mechanic has an island kiosk with Arsenault Associates’ Dossier fleet management software program that has a front-end screen—no clicks—where we can schedule and track maintenance, procure supplies, manage parts inventory, and monitor fuel for the vehicles. We are as close to a paperless shop as we can get, with data instantly retrievable from any networked computer.”

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Hillis explains that the software automatically transmits mileage and hours-in-use information from each vehicle when it is fueled. Maintenance needs are assessed and the mechanic can e-mail each vehicle’s driver when it is time to come in for service. “Our shop personnel have license to interact with any operational level of our user community relative to vehicle operators in “what-if” diagnostic and problem solving discussions, or in more serious service conferences. The mechanic is directly responsible for all scheduled service-related actions starting with driver notification.”

Repair efficiency isn’t the only way Alcoa utilizes technology. The Dossier software also allows much tighter inventory control, and monthly reports detail total parts purchased, total parts sold, total parts adjusted or returned and total inventory valuation after adjustments.

“Parts are uniquely identified and matched with maximum stock and reorder point triggers,” Hillis explains. “Inventories are merged with FM Operations to strategically plan part needs. We also strategically manage annual ‘blanket’ purchase requirements for automotive-related stock items to multiple vendors. Relative to our entire inventory, we cherry-pick responsive and responsible vendors with the lowest and best individual per item bid.”

The functionality of Dossier has been invaluable, says Hillis. “I doubt that we could have accomplished the diversity of projects and programs if the Dossier Fleet MIS was not as operationally flexible as it is. It really is the backbone for who we are and what we do.”

Great relationships with vendors and collaboration with neighboring communities help Alcoa realize purchasing benefits that often are limited to much larger cities.

“We have just completed a cooperative contract that includes our county highway department and our neighboring sister city of Maryville in a six-month oil analysis study leading to bulk oil blanket contracts for us all. Instead of offering 325 vehicles as a target to drive hard toward the vendor’s best bid, we have been able to offer almost 1,000.

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We do the same with capital purchases, both new and used. In cooperative purchases, we share specifications and bid quantities for cruisers, sedans, backhoes, garbage trucks, etc.,” says Hillis. “We help each other in designing methods to sell used equipment, as well. GovDeals.com was used by our sister city first and it did not take long for a call to come in saying, ‘Hey, you should try this.’ To date we have sold almost $250,000 worth of surplus items.”

The net effect of the efficiencies realized by Hillis’ department are being felt elsewhere in the community.

“The name on the door is Support Services and we strive to do just that,” says Hillis. “In 2008 our Police and Fire Departments (AFD/APD) both successfully undertook an exhaustive certification processes, which affects fleets but also directly affects citizen insurance rates. Because of proof that APD complied with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) standards (including our written policies, maintenance inspections, cost sheets and employee e-mails), the accreditation inspection team members talked about the quality of equipment issued to the officer, how well it was maintained and how up-to-date this department is.”

Hillis says thinking outside the box isn’t a phase in Alcoa—it’s a fact. “Without creativity and ingenuity, we would never be able to operate.”

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Just as the software lets employees assess the status of each vehicle, the City of Alcoa has established an annual Performance Assessment Program to help employees know where they stand, as well. “Assessments are conducted on goals achieved the prior year and everyone is given job-related goals for the upcoming year ranging from personal safety, employee interaction, professional advancement and training,” says Hillis. “All employees should expect to receive and provide feedback on how they perform within their job description. Decisions on pay increase, promotional opportunities and improvement plans are part of this solid appraisal system.”

In addition, Alcoa encourages employees to continue their education through the Education and Tuition Reimbursement Program. Hillis says the city has recently instituted an all-staff certification policy for ASE certifications and continued training with a local community technical college.

“As support services manager, I was also allowed to continue my education as well, and have been awarded by the Universal Public Purchasing Certification Council status as a Certified Public Purchasing Officer and Certified Professional Public Buyer under the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing,” Hillis explains. “I also am a member of the National Association of Fleet Administrators and carry the titles of Certified Automotive Fleet Supervisor and Certified Automotive Fleet Manager.”

With the Smokey Mountains as a backdrop, Alcoa has made a concerted effort to be green. Past efforts to introduce biodiesel into the fleet operations were extremely successful, however, the current excessive cost and product quality issues have forced Hillis back to ULSD as his fuel of choice.

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But environmental awareness continues. “Our new $15 million service center has a complete environmental package with 88 geothermal wells supplying all HVAC requirements except ‘demand’ power. All rolling stock is covered, and rain from our tarmac discharges to a constructed wetland that doubles as an eco-friendly bird sanctuary. We burn waste oil to supplement our shop heaters and work with other governmental agencies in supplying them with containers for their used oil, which we also burn.”

Alcoa is also working on green initiatives relative to idling, waste oil burning to augment shop heat, use of extra-long-lived battery technology, and has written specifications around and ordered a commercial garbage truck to be a test bed to install a cutting edge hydrogen fuel augmentation system.

With all this in place, you might expect Hillis to look forward to relaxing on that rocking chair—but that’s not in the works. What’s next for Alcoa?

“We are continuing to work with the leadership of all departments relative to equipment downsizing, specifications, sub group standardization economies and efficiencies,” he explains. “We’re addressing accident mitigation using driver safety training and equipment design, to cost effective repair and vendor oversight. In addition, we have initiated a citywide Fleet FOCUS report to the management of all user departments. The report is provided monthly with about 20 independent fleet use variables trending all costs and operational efficiencies. It also trends a complete range of operational cost analyses by percentage of overall cost of operation, among many others.”

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It is efforts like this that make Alcoa’s selection as one of Government Fleet magazine’s Top 100 Fleets a well-deserved honor.

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