Many organisations have an essential need to stay mobile at all times; emergency services fleets being the obvious example. But few have to cope with everything the weather has to offer as much as the Environment Agency fleet.
Take the floods earlier this year. Environment Agency was constantly on the scene, transporting people and equipment around the country to where they were needed. There was little respite, with many vehicles in use around the clock.
A national incident room was set up to co-ordinate the logistics operation, in particular assessing where and when to move pumps and finding the people and vehicles to do the job, supported by the fleet team.
This ‘go-anywhere, anytime’ mentality requires vehicles that are up to the job and drivers who are able to cope in the most demanding weather conditions.
For Environment Agency, weather challenges are always tied to safety responsibilities. Staff are trained to handle vehicles in averse weather and terrain, including intensive 4x4 training, but are also taught to judge when it is better not to take the risk.
Dale Eynon, Environment Agency head of fleet operations, says: “We have a strong culture of dynamic risk assessments before undertaking any task. We are clear that they must make a risk assessment on each situation, such as driving through standing water.
“We have a fleet of vehicles that is able to meet the demands of harsh terrains; staff must always travel in an appropriate vehicle.”
Half the commercial vehicle fleet is 4x4 vehicles, with a combination of active and passive systems depending on the type of work. It means the agency has ample vehicles to cope with ice and snow.
“We are also moving to grip systems on commercial vehicles and split differentials,” Eynon says.
"These systems add £500 to £700 to the cost of a van, but this is inexpensive when written off over five years. We have 150 vans with this type of technology at the moment.”
Decisions on the type of vehicles required are task based. The starting point is to engage users about the nature of their work. The right type of vehicles can then be matched to the right roles.
These discussions have resulted in Environment Agency deliberating whether to introduce four-wheel drive panel vans as a replacement for some of its 4x4 Land Rover Defenders. Purchase cost, capacity and fuel efficiency are all key factors.
Eynon has also considered winter tyres for vans and cars but ruled them out due to the cost of storage for around 20,000 tyres and the vehicle off-road disruption to the fleet.
“The 4x4 and safety systems offset winter tyres when considering cost,” Eynon says. “We also do not fit heavy duty off-road tyres; we fit 50/50 tyres which give better grip in icy and wet conditions. This compromise works best for both on- and off-road driving.”
He adds: “Tyre selection is key. We replace at 3mm tread depth for cars and 4mm for 4x4s on account that they have to do a more aggressive job. We recognise that there is a trade-off between safety, environment and cost, but we think we have the right balance.”
Environment Agency undertook widespread research before introducing its tyre replacement policy a few years ago. It sought the views of tyre manufacturers and road safety organisations to assess braking distances, wear and handling capabilities in a variety of weather conditions.
“We regularly review the situation to ensure we have the balance right,” adds Eynon. “We pride ourselves on going above the norm on safety.”
However, having the right vehicles and tyres for the job is only half the solution; people also have a crucial role to play. Environment Agency’s driving policy requires employees to assess weather conditions before making the decision to travel.
“It’s about removing the risk completely or reducing it as much as possible. So either they don’t travel at all or, if they have to, they use an appropriate vehicle,” Eynon says.
Every two months, Environment Agency sends out communications to its staff with themes based on the seasons, such as the dangers of drink-driving, heat in vehicles, ensuring washer bottles are full, tyre tread depths, vehicle condition checks and general driving tips.
It also provides weather data to the AA, advising on driving conditions and the precautions to take.
Extreme weather conditions do not just put pressure on the fleet and its drivers, they also affect suppliers.
During the recent flooding, Environment Agency’s fleet management partner Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions was tasked with creating a mobile servicing solution.
“For a four-month period our vehicles were in constant use. Hitachi had to come to our sites to service and repair them,” Eynon explains.
“When you have extreme conditions you have to work closely with your suppliers to create plans, but a lot of this has to be put in place in advance. We pre-empted the issue and had already set-up the solution.”
Right-sizing, not under-sizing
Environment Agency has been one of the most progressive organisations over the past five years on fleet utilisation.
Its van fleet has fallen by almost 350 vehicles to 1,400, with more cuts to come, while more than 600 cars have been removed since 2010 by tightening the policy on job-need cars.
The near-20% reduction in vans was achieved simply by speaking to team leaders across the country to establish their vehicle needs.
In some cases, vehicles were being stock-piled for ‘just-in-case’ scenarios – regional teams wanted to be sure they had sufficient vehicles for unexpected situations – but it resulted in low utilisation levels with vans parked up for long periods.
The initiative didn’t simply focus on removing vans from the fleet; Eynon also assessed the size of van that would be most suitable for each type of business operation.
As a result, a number of vehicles were downsized, primarily from Ford Transit to Transit Connect.
“It was a challenge; we have a wide number of functions to understand what’s required to be carried as standard,” Eynon says.
“We agreed pre-defined modular racking systems for each type of vehicle that enable us to fit more equipment into smaller vans.
“We also have a matrix for each type of job – for example: will the equipment fit in the boot of a car, do you need to tow, what are the weight limitations, do you drive off-road and, if so, is it grass/gravel or very soft ground and how many people do you carry.”
The analysis has completely changed the profile of Environment Agency’s fleet.
Before the programme began, around 70-80% of the vans were 3.5-tonne vehicles; now 60-70% are smaller vans.
The fleet utilisation programme alone over the past four years has resulted in a 10% cost saving.
The smaller vehicles will further boost savings due to lower purchasing costs and better fuel consumption.
Did this considerable reduction in fleet size not prove to be a liability when handling the 24/7 response needed to tackle the floods?
“No, we had no issues with vehicles,” Eynon replies. “We have right-sized our fleet, not under-sized. We partition 15-20% of our 4x4 vehicles for incident response. Cuts in fleet size come elsewhere so we will always have sufficient resource.”
The next phase in the utilisation programme will be driven by telematics. Environment Agency has just completed a trial and will begin rolling out its preferred system later this year.
“Telematics will reduce our fleet by another 5-10%,” says Eynon, although he adds that this is a supplementary benefit. The main reason for introducing telematics is safety.
“The system will give us a safety score, looking at braking, speeding etc., and an environmental score that we will use to coach people one-to-one,” he says. “Safer drivers will be more efficient drivers so we expect to reduce fuel consumption and lower maintenance costs as well.”
The telematics data will be combined with online licence checks and risk assessments to create a full driver profile. Coaching will subsequently be tailored to each individual.
“I’m not a fan of driver training; I believe that telematics is a better intervention because it is continuous evaluation,” says Eynon.
The 10-month trial, with systems installed on 55 light commercial vehicles, saw harsh incidents fall by 45%, while fuel efficiency improved by 10%.
The entire van fleet will be fitted with telematics over the next few months. Eynon is also considering installing it on the plant fleet, and hopes to extend it to cars as well next year.
He accepts car drivers’ concerns about privacy and says talks are ongoing about the right solution. Various options are available, including enabling drivers to switch off everything except location so that cars can still be traced in case they are stolen or allowing drivers to have full switch-off for private use.
“We still have to work on that, but there is a commitment in principle to introduce telematics into cars,” Eynon says.
Telematics will also help when it comes to preparing for major incidents caused by the weather. Environment Agency will be better placed to deploy resources and keep track of their whereabouts by installing telematics to items such as pumps.
“I will be able to map the fleet on the type of assets and assess utilisation by setting targets based on how often a vehicle moves rather than its absolute mileage,” Eynon says.
“For example, a vehicle might only do 200 miles a month but that’s 10-20 miles every day. We will look at patterns of usage and set targets for commercial vehicles of 70-80% usage over a month.”
As Eynon increases the level of detail he uses to assess his fleet, the make-up and number of vehicles will become ever more precise, helping to ensure Environment Agency continues to cope with the challenges triggered by extreme weather.