A 24/7 Front-Line Fleet

22 May

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Bruce Robb explains how the council has adapted its vehicles and people to ensure front-line services remain uninterrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are required to be a front-line service provider at all times and we haven’t missed a beat.”

With around 180,000 people relying on its services, maintaining operations during the pandemic has been crucial for West Lothian Council. It has had to balance the need to maintain front-line services with the challenge of having a huge proportion of staff working from home and the challenges of social distancing and school closures.

Key to maintaining essential services has been the 30-strong fleet services team – responsible for the safety, repair and maintenance of the council’s fleet of more than 1,000 vehicles ranging from street cleaning units and lawnmowers to refuse collection vehicles and buses.

Managing this varied fleet would be a challenge at the best of times, but even more so when you’re relatively new to the job and facing a global health pandemic. According to the council’s fleet operations manager, Bruce Robb: “It’s been an interesting time! I came into the job at the tail end of November so you could say it has been a baptism of fire.

“However, in some ways that has worked in our favour because when I came in the first thing I did was carry out a thorough review of processes to ensure that our fleet would remain continually in operation regardless of the situation – at this point we had no inkling of the pandemic that was coming our way. The fleet is a priority for the council to ensure its essential services always happen.”

Changing priorities and redistributing drivers

The council operates a clear table of priority services – for example, during winter the gritting lorries are the first priority in order to keep roads clear and safe. But Covid-19 has changed the priority list. “We are fortunate in a way that Covid-19 didn’t happen in the winter,” says Bruce. “Obviously we don’t need gritter lorries at the moment and our priority now is the cemetery support vehicles and keeping them operational. This asset set is our number one priority.”

Another area of high importance is the council’s waste services and recycling fleet, made up of 30 vehicles: “These are a constant front-line service but they are even more important during the lockdown as 80% of adults are now working from home and as a result are generating a lot more rubbish which has to be dealt with.”

“The waste services fleet has been operational throughout and we’ve also moved to re-train some of our HGV drivers who are currently not able to drive their usual vehicles (for example, those who drive street cleaning vehicles) so that they can drive waste lorries too. This has helped us boost recycling during the pandemic. And to ensure social distancing rules are observed, the usual two-person crew is now divided into two vehicles – the waste lorry driver is now followed on the round by the loader who drives behind in one of the council’s pool cars.”

This is just one example of how the council has repurposed its fleet. “We’ve got 150 pool cars which are normally reserved via an online booking system,” adds Bruce. “To cope with the increased need for social care during the pandemic, we have re-thought this system and allocated a car to each carer who is out working in the community. This means we don’t have the added worry of 10 people using the same car and the extra effort of cleaning it after each use – in this way the person allocated the car is responsible for its cleaning and hygiene measures.”

Creating fleet ‘bubbles’

This has enabled the council to create a ‘bubble’ for around a third of the operational fleet still in use. Each vehicle comes with its own hygiene pack containing wipes and sanitiser, plus there is advice to each driver on the safe operation of the vehicle. This includes driving with the windows open, turning the air vents and air recirculation off and not using the air conditioning. “It is important that our staff feel safe and having them all work to the same hygiene standards helps,” adds Bruce.

Also, if a vehicle has been used by a member of staff suspected of having Covid-19, a specialist cleaning unit from the facilities team is drafted in to visit the car and carry out a decontamination.

Elsewhere, a fleet of 32 larger minibuses has been stood down from its normal role of taking children to childcare centres and are now being used as social distancing support vehicles, enabling several staff to be transported in the same vehicle while remaining two metres apart. The council has also been asked by Transport Scotland to have a fleet of minibuses on emergency stand-by for the NHS – at present there are 10 fully cleaned vehicles ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Managing the team

But it’s not just dealing with vehicles; managing the needs and safety of the 30-strong fleet operations team has also provided challenges. Bruce adds: “People are so used to the camaraderie of the workshop and asking them to change that is difficult. We’ve got all the necessary hygiene equipment and social distancing signage in place but it’s not just about that, it’s about changing the mindset. We’re also trying to help employees by offering changes in shift patterns (the department operates 24/7) to help with work/home life balance – essential for some who currently have children not at school.”

Bruce has nothing but praise for his team: “The fleet department has made sure our vehicles are fully maintained to all relevant standards. We haven’t taken advantage of the MoT extensions or the relaxing of legislation on drivers’ hours – there’s no opt-out of fleet safety. I’d like to thank all of the fleet services team for their support and their flexibility in dealing with this pandemic – it’s been a real team effort.

“We are required to be a front-line service provider at all times and we haven’t missed a beat.”

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