When disaster strikes your city, one thing that could compound the problem is not having enough fuel for emergency responders and public works vehicles. Police, fire and emergency medical personnel have to get to victims quickly and roads need to be cleared of debris so that they can.
Last year the hurricane season was especially devastating with a greater number of consecutive hurricanes and three of the worst — Harvey, Irma and Maria — making landfall in the U.S. Fleet managers of three different communities shared how their cities weather those types of storms.
When Hurricane Harvey hit land in Texas on Aug. 25, news that Gulf Coast oil production was halted created widespread panic that not only affected the hurricane-ravaged cities of Rockport, Dickinson, Beaumont, League City, Houston and other surrounding areas, but also spread hundreds of miles north.
David Garza, fleet administrative supervisor for the city of Plano, Texas, admitted the fuel shortage caught them by surprise.
“We are in the process of changing everything because of Hurricane Harvey,” he said.
The panic had everyone running for gas on the same day, creating a fuel supply line shortage even in Plano, which is approximately 260 miles north of Houston. Garza said the police chief and the fire chief were “irritated with fleet” because they couldn’t get fuel and were sent to neighboring cities to fill up.
“Three years ago the city of Plano got out of the fuel dispensing business,” said Garza, explaining that the decision was a financial one. He said some of the tanks were older and rather than replace them and deal with the regulations required when owning fuel tanks, city officials decided to go with a fleet fuel card for city vehicles instead. The fleet fuel cards were used at local gas stations, helping local businesses.
“It was win-win,” Garza said. “Garbage trucks alone use 30 to 40 gallons a day, and the guys would go in and buy chips and drinks, too. They (the local vendors) were loving me!”
Plano has 900 vehicles in its fleet and purchases 1.2 million gallons of fuel annually. Fleet supervisors were able to track mileage through the cards and everything was working fantastic. Until it didn’t.
Despite the standard operating procedures in place with the vendors to supply the city, when “everyone decided to get gas on the same day” and fuel ran out, fleet officials realized they needed to do something different in the future.
“There was such a huge panic, (and) once the mad rush was over, it didn’t matter what (agreements) we had,” Garza said, noting that there was no fuel.
Garza said the hurricane itself had no effect on the city, but they hadn’t calculated on the panic it would trigger.
“We learned that we have to have a stockpile of fuel for our first responders — at least one tank somewhere in the city.
He recalled that when the city was taking its last tank out of the ground, someone had asked ‘Are you sure?’ However, the mindset at that time was if the gas stations can’t get gas, the city wouldn’t be able to either.
Garza said that refuse collection alone uses 7,000 gallons of fuel each week. The lesson learned is an expensive one. He said those few days of having to send first responders to another community were costly. He also anticipates it could cost millions to get back into the fuel dispensing business by the time they get the approvals from the Environmental Protection Agency and other costs.
To Plano’s advantage the city is doing well fiscally right now. Garza said it is the most densely populated city in the state of Texas. “If I was a mayor of a small town somewhere, I’d sure want to have a supply of fuel in reserves,” Garza said.
However, he pointed out that, because of low sulphur and alcohol content in the gas, the fuel can go bad so it’s not like it can sit there for years waiting for that catastrophic tornado or ice storm to hit. If a community has a reserve fuel supply, it has to use the fuel during non-emergencies to rotate it and keep it from going bad.
The city of Plano is being given a “hot off the presses proposal to get a fuel tank and a fuel tanker truck” — this would give the city more options. In the situation that happened in August, employees could’ve driven the fuel tanker truck somewhere else to fill it up and then bring it back to dispense to emergency responders.
Garza said that is a good suggestion for other municipalities as well. “They wouldn’t need to have storage tanks, just have a tanker truck sitting empty and in the event of an emergency go fill it up and dispense right from the truck. Then there’d be no worry about rotating fuel.”
Part of the proposal calls for the continued use of the fleet fuel cards at local vendors, too.
“We did learn that things can happen that you’re not prepared for,” Garza said. “This was completely off our radar having this widespread panic.”
Ocean City, Md.
Ocean City, Md., is a barrier island and has had its share of hurricane hits, but it also gets snowstorm emergencies, too.
Catrice Parsons, procurement manager for Ocean City, is in charge of fleet management. She said the responsibility is shared, with public works handling the actual maintenance of the fleet.
Ocean City uses a fleet management system that assigns every employee a reference identification number, and every asset or vehicle also has its own identification number. Employees are given a chip key card that enables them to get fuel from the depot while the card monitors consumption.
The fuel depot has its own emergency fuel management system, and in the event of an electrical shutdown, the system can be overridden and manually pumped.
Parsons said if the fuel depot were inoperable for some reason, the city “has relationships with suppliers set up where they would track the fuel for us and we would pay by invoice.”
If the island is affected to the point where employees have to leave it to get fuel, she said they have worked out a system with the state of Maryland where the city would get charged state rates for fuel. There are certain sites where employees would go to get the state rates; the city has had to use this plan in the past.
The fuel depot has four underground storage tanks, each 10,000 gallons. There are also diesel tanks, low sulphur diesel and unleaded fuel. The eight pumps then allow the city to service the 500-600 vehicles in its fleet. Parsons said there’s a threshold established of when to order more fuel.
“We try not to get too low — we’re very cautious — especially in the summer when we’re fueling every day or every other day,” she said. But Ocean City also got hit hard in an early January snowstorm. “We were shut down on Jan. 4, and there were limited resources on the island. We had limited operations on Jan. 5 and through the next week, which is unusual for Ocean City.”
The city is also susceptible to flooding because of the low water table, and Parsons noted, “In today’s age, acts of terrorism and violence are also a threat to the fuel supply.”
Ocean City owns a 1,000-gallon fuel truck that it takes out to top off generators and other city-owned facilities when a storm is on the way. Her advice is to reach out to others and discuss what they do in an emergency. “I always say you don’t know what you don’t know — don’t rely on your own knowledge alone.”
The city of Miramar in south Florida, just north of Miami and west of Fort Lauderdale, has an emergency fuel management plan in place. Assistant Director of Public Works Kirk Hobson-Garcia said the city has three emergency tanks that employees fill up at the start of hurricane season, June 1, and empty at the end of the season, Nov. 30. All are 10,000-gallon tanks — one for diesel and two for unleaded.
Extra fuel is ordered during the hurricane season to make sure the tanks stay filled.
Aside from the emergency tanks, Hobson-Garcia said, “We have sufficient fuel in each tank to last for several weeks.”
The unleaded tank has a 10-day capacity and the diesel a 14-day capacity. The fuel depot has 14 dispensers. The city also has its own fuel truck that can hold 2,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline and 1,000 gallons of diesel. In case of disruption of fuel delivery to Miramar, they can send the truck out to other communities to bring fuel back. Hobson-Garcia said they have a standard operating procedure when they hear news of a potential storm approaching.
“Typically what we do is have all the staff come in and fill up all the vehicles then we order fuel to top off the tanks,” he said. “Then we use our fuel truck to deliver fuel around to all our facilities to fill generators and fuel tanks.”
Hobson-Garcia and another assistant director, Tenelle Decoste, said when Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, it was an eye-opener. During that hurricane, the city realized “we weren’t as prepared as we could’ve been,” and afterwards, it invested in the emergency tanks for hurricane season.
The cost to install the three emergency tanks, including engineering and permitting, was $193,254.08.
The approximate annual cost to maintain the city’s fuel depot is about $40,600 and an additional $4,000 a year for permits and licensing. To maintain the building with the emergency tanks and generators costs the city about $59,000 a year with an additional $6,300 in licenses and permits from the state and county. The cost to purchase the tanker truck was approximately $135,000.
The fuel depot is on a backup generator system in case of a power outage. Hobson-Garcia said the fuel tanks are on a wireless system so measurements can be taken from the office rather than going out and doing it manually. During Hurricane Irma, every shift change brought incident command updates on fuel levels.
The city was without power for a week or so during Hurricane Irma. Local gas stations were out of fuel for a couple of days, so city employees were given a ration of fuel for their personal vehicles to get back and forth to work. They were working 12-hour shifts for about two weeks and in between needed to check on their families and homes.
Hobson-Garcia said employees cleaned up 362,000 yards of debris after the hurricane. Personnel also kept in contact with other local suppliers in case something happened at Port Everglades and fuel couldn’t get to them.
Hobson-Garcia advised that municipalities “should look at the quantity needed if there were a catastrophe and ask, ‘Do we have sufficient infrastructure to support us for at least a week without getting help from outside?’”
Miramar chose 10 days as a minimum, and he said, “So far it’s been working — we’ve never run out of fuel.” The lowest the city has gotten is 50 percent, and he said, though people were worried, things were up and running again in another day or two.
He recommended having a fuel depot. “If you do lose power, you can still dispatch to emergency responders,” he said, adding that every city has to determine its comfort level of being able to keep vehicles on the road.
“You don’t even have to have a full depot,” Hobson-Garcia said. “If you’re getting good market value prices, one storage tank with a dispenser might be good enough, and the size of the tank determines how long you want to be self-sufficient.”
The fleet managers of these three communities have all had to face emergencies — natural and man-made — while still getting first responders to victims and clearing roads of debris.
Their advice can be summed up in the words of Decoste: “Be prepared for the worst.”