Fleet News

Managing uptime: Keeping your fleet fighting fit

Effectively managing uptime is crucial for any fleet operator, but perhaps nowhere more so than for breakdown companies and emergency services, whose vehicles are vital to public safety. Emma Cooper talks to four national fleet managers about how they keep their fleets operational

Having vehicles off-road directly impacts on service levels and bottom lines, not to mention brand and customer relations, especially if those vehicles are ‘mission critical’ to the nature of your business.

This is particularly the case when it comes to emergency service vehicles, paramount in saving lives and combating crime, and which also host myriad specialist features your local daily rental firm would struggle to cater for.

In the words of John Gorton, head of transport at Kent and Essex Police: “You can’t just go and spot-hire a police car, and you certainly can’t do that with our armed vehicles, which have weapons storage, or our police dog vehicles with dog containment sections.”

So how do emergency services and breakdown service providers, which also need to keep their vehicles on the road, predict and reduce downtime?

We spoke to The AA, RAC, South Central Ambulance Services and  Kent and Essex Police about the strategies they employ to mitigate and manage downtime. 

Trevor Thompson, head of fleet, South Central Fleet Services (subsidiary company of South Central Ambulance Service NHS Trust)

Fleet size (cars/vans): Circa 530

Fleet make-up/average vehicle type: 200 ambulances, 80 rapid response cars, 250 patient transport vehicles

Brand include: Ford, Iveco Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Volvo

Annual fleet mileage: 40,000 per vehicle on average

Maintenance: In-house


John Gorton, head of transport,

Kent and Essex Police   

Fleet size: 1,800 automotive vehicles across Kent and Essex (plus boats and bicycles)

Make up: 1,300 cars, 320 vans, 180 LGVs and bikes

Brands: Various

Average mileage: 13 million miles across the fleet. Mileage significantly varies depending on vehicle – traffic/response vehicle can run up to 60,000-70,000 miles per year, compared to a CID car at 15,000-20,000 miles per year

Maintenance: In-house


Tim Hartles, national fleet manager, The RAC

Fleet size: 1,751 vehicles

Fleet make-up/average vehicle type: 233 cars, 1,463 LCVs and 55 HGVs, including patrol vans, Volkswagen Transporter, Ford custom vans, Mercedes-Benz Vito

Annual fleet mileage: Cars averaging 20,000 miles, LCVs averaging 25,000 miles, HGVs averaging 100,000 miles per year

Maintenance: Outsourced


Chris Wiltshire, AA fleet engineer, The AA

Fleet size: Circa 3,000

Fleet make-up/average vehicle type: Medium-sized panel van (Ford Custom and Volkswagen Transporter)

Annual fleet mileage: 25,000 per vehicle

Maintenance: Outsourced

Tell us about the demands on your fleet, and why minimising downtime is so vital.

Chris Wiltshire: The AA fleet consists of predominately medium-sized panel vans, supported by a small fleet of 12-tonne trucks. The fleet is designed, built and utilised to ensure we can maximise the repair or recovery opportunity for our customers in need of rescue.

Any unplanned vehicle off-road time has the potential to extend the customer waiting time or ultimately force us to subcontract that repair or recovery to an approved garage.

The commitment to the customer of our brand attending is lost and so the brand value is at risk of being diluted.

Trevor Thompson: The demands on the fleet are extremely high. Around 200 vehicles are accident and emergency vehicles, delivering advanced patient care in emergency and often life-threatening situations 24/7, 365 days a year. This number of vehicles has to provide a timely service across the four counties of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire, an area of more than 3,500 square miles.

Minimising vehicle downtime is a priority, as when a vehicle is not available to operations it is not available to deliver urgent patient care.

In addition, there are circa 80 rapid response cars manned by paramedics who are usually first on the scene to treat and assess a patient’s needs. South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) also provides a patient transport service to and from health premises across this same geographical area, ensuring those patients who require day care and essential appointments arrive safely and on time.

John Gorton: It’s quite a mixed fleet. 50% are marked operational vehicles, a quarter of which are response vehicles that regularly exceed normal speed laws, meaning the level of maintenance needs to be really high. Unmarked vehicles are covert but still require heavy maintenance as they’ll be running blues and twos often.

We’re responding to everything, from a shop theft to an armed person or even a terrorist incident, so it really is ‘life and limb’ for our drivers, and, with regards to our traffic officers, they can be the first on the scene at a major incident. It’s essential our fleet can get the right teams of officers to the right place as soon as possible.

Tim Hartles: With a 1,500 strong patrol force attending around 2.3 million breakdowns in a single year, our fleet is extremely busy. Our members rely on us to keep them moving and ensure they are safe on the roads.

Reducing downtime is key for us because, just as with any large fleet operation, a vehicle that is off the road is not doing its job, which means effectively it is losing us business. But more importantly, it means we can’t use that vehicle to serve our members’ needs. Of course, we have contingencies in place to avoid any loss of service, but we have huge demands on our fleet especially at peak times such as mid-winter and summer holidays. Fortunately, the nature of the RAC fleet means our patrols can maintain their own vehicles, which helps to minimise any disruption that might be caused through downtime.


How do you manage scheduled maintenance efficiently?

John Gorton: We schedule vehicles in for maintenance every six months or 12,000 miles – whichever comes first – but for some it’s not enough. Ultimately, safety is our first priority and these vehicles wear faster: our response vehicles are under much more stress than a public vehicle.

Telematics is helping with scheduling – our maintenance team know where vehicles are and how hard they are being driven. We can see which vehicles are being driven more often and ensure they are scheduled in as early as needed. The Civica Tranman system we use helps us load the five Kent and Essex workshops in order of priority and workshop staff then call vehicles in for routine downtime.

Chris Wiltshire: Our fleet maintenance has been outsourced to, and managed by, BT Fleet for 12 years, and by working closely together over this time our fleet has become part of their experienced workshops. Vans are booked by individual drivers to be serviced during the patrol’s rostered rest or leave periods, with service completion dates agreed within contract to limit vehicle unavailability.

The trucks are on a fixed-service pattern that is booked a year in advance, with any new truck taking the service pattern of the truck it replaces, keeping rebooking and rescheduling to a minimum. Service types are agreed contractually with set times, with an remedial maintenance allowance and all pre-booked repairs to be complete within that service window.

Where available, servicing is pushed into evening or overnight servicing so that trucks are available for the start of the next shift.

Trevor Thompson: SCFS has four workshops, spread from Oxfordshire to Hampshire. Scheduled maintenance is managed by a planned weekly programme.

Working with the SCAS operations team, vehicles required for maintenance are requested to be delivered to the facility, with the vehicles backfilled by spares.

Tim Hartles: Scheduled maintenance is managed in partnership with our leasing provider, Lex Autolease. We use a compliance calendar, which is an online tool that maps our vehicle maintenance requirements.

This ensures service and inspections are regularly scheduled and adhered to on time.


How do you manage unscheduled maintenance efficiently?

John Gorton: Police drivers are responsible for picking up issues and they are very attuned to their cars. If they have a vehicle that’s not responding as it should, they get that vehicle in for maintenance as quickly as possible.

Our workshops have part of every day dedicated to unscheduled work.

However, scheduled work takes priority as we want as many of the vehicles back out on the roads as quickly as possible.

Chris Wiltshire: Where a roadside repair is not feasible then, working with BT Fleet, the unscheduled downtime is covered by workshops with extended hours and truck manufacturer warranty and support.

BT maintenance is contractually held to account on repair times which has led to a greater partnership between the manufacturers, BT and The AA to ensure all technical assistance is available. Regular review meetings that involve the manufacturer technical support team with BT and The AA build these relationships, so foster better B2B opportunities.

Vehicle availability and compliance teams within the AA work with BT to ensure all routes to repair are explored, so that the best, most cost effective – not necessarily the cheapest – method is employed.

This is driven by the fact that our vehicles are not easily replaced in the short-term by hire vehicles due to the specific  role type.

Tim Hartles: There are always scenarios that you can’t prepare for with any fleet, the RAC’s included. All of our vehicles are mission critical, so engagement with the driver and the repair network is paramount to ensure we reach a solution quickly.

Finding the nearest garage is not always the quickest answer, so we engage with a network of repairers to ensure downtime is kept to a minimum.

Trevor Thompson: Unscheduled maintenance is managed via a triage system with major defects acted upon immediately and the vehicle removed from operations and repaired, either by a mobile engineer or workshop.

Minor but roadworthy defects are repaired during vehicle downtime, or when the vehicle is delivered in for its planned maintenance.


What effect have your initiatives had on vehicle off-road time?

Chris Wiltshire: Working closely with all parties from equipment and vehicle suppliers and with the maintenance provider, we are seeing a better availability of vehicles. Even those vehicles that reach the end of their planned life but continue to be part of the frontline fleet have a better than forecast maintenance cost.

Tim Hartles: Having a skilled workforce helps us deliver 99% availability of our fleet at all times. Because we employ a ‘one man, one van’ approach, our drivers have ownership and take pride in their vehicle. They are also qualified to do their own maintenance work successfully and efficiently to keep our vehicles moving at all times.

Trevor Thompson: A review of in-house versus external maintenance providers demonstrated the clear benefit of in-house maintenance for the emergency fleet, due to the complexity of equipment on the vehicles requiring maintenance, with the variance in off-road time in some cases improving by 50%.

The benefits of this model have also been proved with SCAS setting up the fleet department, headed by myself, as a wholly owned subsidiary company in November 2015.

The adoption of a biannual full service programme for the emergency vehicles has ensured all equipment, e.g tail-lifts, stretchers, are maintained while the vehicles are off-road, reducing the need for vehicles to be off-road at various intervals.

John Gorton: The vast majority of our vehicles are out working on the roads, and uptime has been steadily increasing, from 96.9% in 2014 and 97.9% in 2015 to 98.1% so far for the start of 2016.


What is your policy on vehicle checks?

John Gorton: Officers are required to check their vehicles over at least two-to-three times a day. On occasion, these vehicles are travelling up to 140mph – it is essential our officers are routinely undertaking their own checks, looking over tyres, etc. If they find anything that’s a problem they are able to phone one of the workshops for a quick fix and repair. On occasion, staff also get training to do the basics themselves, such as windscreen wipers and lights.

The cars also have a more thorough checkover once a week to check the oil and get a good look at things under the bonnet.

Chris Wiltshire: All truck drivers have a legal responsibility to carry out daily checks, with enhanced weekly checks carried out during hours of lower demand, e.g. Sunday mornings.

All van drivers are required to complete daily checks, and also have specific weekly and pre-use checks that must be carried out and recorded. Records from all drivers are in duplicate at the minimum, with copies sent to the compliance teams to ensure completeness with closed loop reporting.

Tim Hartles: All of our drivers have to complete a daily walk-around check of their vehicle, and these daily checks are then recorded electronically.

Trevor Thompson: All vehicles are checked by the operator before every shift in addition to the planned maintenance checks.


Do you use telematics or driver apps to help reduce downtime?

Trevor Thompson: SCFS uses a system called Terrafix, which is a specialist emergency response tracking system that enables crews and operators to pinpoint vehicle locations.

It also combines radio communications so ambulance crews conduct radio communications.  All journeys are tracked, and vehicles utilised, by location and vehicle type.

John Gorton: We have recently trialled an off-the-shelf solution from Mix Telematics in 500 of our cars. We don’t host the data or  kit, we just want the data – which is extremely cost effective. We can convert it across to frontline operations. It’s not just a fleet management tool, as now command and control are using the data to manage operational placement and meet demand, so they can see where our assets are, who the cars are being driven by and who’s closest to an incident. That extra operational efficiency is also having a good impact on keeping down mileage.

The Mix system also comes with an Android/iOS compatible app, giving drivers a traffic-light style score system and dashboard, so they can compare their driving with colleagues. Allowing drivers to see their behaviour in real-time has also been interesting, as they are self-assessing and altering behaviour. It’s been such a success. We are now looking to roll out telematics in all of our vehicles by July 2016.

Tim Hartles: We fitted out our entire fleet with RAC telematics units three years ago. We have the capability within our own telematics units to provide a fully connected vehicle service. However, with 1,400 trained mechanics driving our vehicles, often many of the issues are resolved by our own drivers.

What telematics technology does provide is that added duty of care element, ensuring that we know where every one of our vehicles is at any given time. Telematics also influences driver behaviour and therefore helps keep accidents or wear-and-tear of vehicles to an absolute minimum, in turn increasing productivity and helping to keep our fleet on the roads.

Chris Wiltshire: All vehicles are fitted with Trakm8 telematics units and a driver dashboard is being tested currently to monitor vehicle ECU faults reporting so that maintenance and component and fault failure can be accurately predicted, enabling us to fix before fail.

BT Fleet is in the process of rolling out a complete real-time service portal so that actual service tasks, times and activities are transparent and hopefully enabling a server link into The AA’s truck availability system, giving a measurable improvement.

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