If you feel like you live in a world of never-ending crises, constantly lurching from one emergency to another, it’s understandable. Thanks to the explosive technology revolution, we live in an astoundingly small world today. It’s a global community powered by a global super economy, two trends that have been overwhelmingly positive for trucking in the past decade. However, that smaller world comes with a steep price. Events in Iran or China can have repercussions in Jonesboro, Arkansas, or Minot, North Dakota, with stunning speed, leaving chaos and disruption in their wake.
At the same time, climate change has accelerated weather patterns in unprecedented ways. Massive storms that used to be seen once in a century or so now seem to be yearly events. Nor’easters pound the East Coast with regularity. Hurricanes blast into the Gulf Coast states one after the other. The Midwest sees massive super cell tornado events that leave debris trails hundreds of miles long. And searing droughts turn the Western states into tinder boxes that erupt into massive wildfires with a single lighting strike or at the drop of match.
Added to all of this in 2020 were the global COVID-19 pandemic, the largest examples of civil unrest in over a generation, and an increasing number of high-profile cyberattacks on trucking and logistics companies.
Through all of this, the nation’s trucks were on the job, hauling goods in and out of areas ravaged by storms, fires, civil unrest, and disease. And because of the size of North America and the vast array of climates and geography inside its borders, a national truck fleet could have drivers, facilities, and personnel in multiple crisis hotspots at any given time.
Yet many fleets do not have any plan in place for managing operations during natural disasters, according to a 2020 survey by the American Transportation Research Institute and the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association Foundation on the impacts of COVID-19.
Nearly 80% of owner-operators and small fleets did not have such a plan, the survey found. This was in stark contrast to fleets with more than 1,000 trucks, where 70% of respondents did have a disaster response plan in place. Of fleets that did have emergency plans, fewer than one-third of those plans specifically addressed pandemics.
Of course, having a plan in place, on a shelf somewhere, only gets you so far. You need not just the “what” but also the “who.” That’s why some fleets have developed dedicated crisis management teams that convene in the event of an emergency to map out a clear, coordinated response and action plan to deal with an emerging disaster, disease or unrest.
We talked to fleets about what they learned from responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it will help them plan for the next crisis
Crisis Management: Under a Big Umbrella
When the COVID-19 pandemic first sprang into the national consciousness in late February, Werner Enterprises, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, visibly and publicly took the initiative on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It worked to educate employees, drivers, and the trucking industry and public about the size and scope of the emerging outbreak, and share advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to contain the spread of the virus and stay healthy as the novel coronavirus began to rapidly spread across the continent.
The carrier was able to react to the unfolding pandemic so quickly because a longstanding crisis management team is in place and ready to meet the moment a problem arises, says Jaime Maus, vice president of safety and compliance for Werner.
“We’ve had our hands — and our people — in a lot of disasters over the years,” Maus says. “And for many years, we did what most businesses do: Just try to wing it and muddle our way through the problem and out to the other side. But we understood that this approach wasn’t helping us perform as well as possible in these situations. And we realized that without an overarching plan, we often had different personnel in different parts of the country — or sometimes even in different parts of the company —dealing with these critical situations in very different ways. It’s very hard to perform at your best when you don’t have your entire team working together to solve, or at least manage, a problem.”
Werner’s crisis management team dates back to 2009, when the H1N1 flu virus threatened the country. “It was obvious that we weren’t simply going to be able to deal with this outbreak as it unfolded,” Maus says now. “And, given the potential scale and scope of the outbreak, we knew that the only way we could ensure all of our employees’ safety, regardless of where they were, was to have a comprehensive plan in place with contingency options for best- and worst-case scenarios.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, fleets with emergency plans in place or full-blown crisis management teams ready to swing into action had a distinct advantage over fleets that were simply reacting to events as they happened. Even plans that didn’t specifically address a pandemic were useful as a starting point.
“We had some business continuity plans already developed, and we pulled those out and reviewed those, and really started tightening them up to ensure they cover issues such as COVID-19,” says Gerry Mead, executive vice president with the Hub Group, an Illinois-based transportation management company providing intermodal, truck brokerage and logistics services. “We started doing a weekly meeting as an executive team, understanding what communication was needed to ensure that we protect all of our employees, from office, driver, and technician bases.”
In mid-March, M&W Logistics in Nashville, Tennessee, assembled a crisis response team and “put detailed step-by-step plans together for each department and each scenario and got those documented and distributed,” says Safety Manager Chris Woody.
This crisis task force, he says, is made up of decision-makers and department heads. “What we wanted to do was have whatever came out of that task force meeting to be immediately implemented” by those departments.
The first thing they addressed was what to do if an employee had symptoms or was diagnosed with COVID-19. “And then we imagined all the scenarios within those departments. It took a while. We met every single day, for a long time each day, but we knew it was important.”
U.S. Xpress is another large national carrier that has determined a crisis management team is a must-have in today’s volatile world. While the fleet had a preliminary crisis team in place at the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 prompted the Tennessee-based carrier’s top executives to expand its size, scope and authority.
“As a leadership team, we had been talking about developing a dedicated crisis team for some time,” says Amanda Thompson, chief people officer, U.S. Xpress. “Early in the first quarter of 2020, we heard rumblings going on overseas related to COVID-19, and that’s what really spurred us to start digging in deep for fine-tuning of the crisis management plan we had already drafted.”
One of the first tasks the U.S. Xpress team had to tackle was to determine what, exactly, constituted a “crisis.” Eventually, Thompson says, after much discussion, the team decided that a crisis would be defined as “any situation that could shut down the company’s transportation and/or logistics network due to systems failure or not having the ability to dispatch, pay, bill, and collect from a people perspective.”
With a mission statement in hand, a small team of representatives from several critical company divisions, including the audit, communications, and legal departments, was put in place to begin the process of fleshing out a full-blown crisis management team.
“We started out with three primary team members who have previous experience in building contingency plans,” Thompson says. “Since then, we have expanded that representation to include officers from our facilities, human resources, IT and operations divisions.”
While the natural inclination is to approach a crisis from an internal perspective, Werner’s Maus says it became apparent early on that including outside partners was necessary in order to ensure any plans put into action would be as effective as possible.
“We have many business partners around the country that we depend on, and they depend on us to move goods,” she says. “At the same time, we deal with both state governments and the federal government on many regulatory issues that require an honest dialog as to what’s happening in a given situation and what they’re planning to do — and need us to do in response. It quickly became apparent to us that you cannot plan for everything. And even the best plans can be disrupted if you have outside entities who don’t understand what you’re doing and why.
“We found that crisis management needs to be a big umbrella in order to deal with the multiple problems and situations any modern crisis can present. Cross-representation from inside your company is a given. But to be truly effective, you have to consider your business partners and, if possible, allow them to participate in the planning as well.”
Communication Critical in a Crisis
At the very least, Maus stresses, you must be able to communicate your crisis response plans to your business partners. That underscores another vital point: The best crisis response plan in the world is utterly useless unless you can communicate its details effectively to everyone involved.
“We are lucky today in that technology enables us to flash information out to everyone in our organization in a matter of minutes,” she says. “Drivers used to be the weak link in our communication efforts. And that was particularly worrisome when the pandemic hit.”
Werner’s in-cab communication network, which was developed to transmit safety and compliance information to every truck in its fleet, proved to be the perfect means of getting vital information about the disease to drivers.
“We suddenly understood that simply ‘communicating’ with our employees was just the beginning,” Maus says. “But in a situation as scary as this pandemic has been, you also have to educate your people so they understand what’s going on and why the crisis response team is making the decisions that are communicated to them.”
Even Werner CEO Derek Leathers had a high-profile role to play on the communication and education front — to let the world know what Werner was doing to combat the pandemic and what the industry needed to help keep vital goods moving at the height of the pandemic.
“We are lucky that Derek is a well-known, engaged voice in the trucking industry,” Maus says. “And so, we were able to use him on social media to reinforce our plan and our safety messaging to our own employees across the country — but also to other fleets and suppliers in the industry.”
As the fragmented government reaction to the pandemic began to take different courses of action around the country, Werner realized that Leathers could be used to advocate for the industry at large and keep well-intentioned but harmful overreactions in check.
“A perfect example is early on during the shut-down when several states announced they were going to close roadside rest areas,” Maus says. “Derek was able to point out that doing so would hinder drivers nationally and impede the flow of goods around the country at a time when supply shortages were growing acutely. And that pushback helped keep many rest areas open and the trucks rolling.”
“Our companies are made up of people, and they’re all real, live human beings, and our drivers are not robots that hold a steering wheel,” says M&W’s Woody. “If you’re going to ask them to work in whatever capacity during this thing or anything else where they could potentially be in danger, you owe it to them to do everything you possibly can. So that’s what we did. We made sure that we had a plan that kept them in mind, and then we made sure that we communicated to everyone that we have a plan.”
At U.S. Xpress, employees were routinely kept up to date on the company’s COVID-19 response measures with regular town halls, where employees were not only updated on actions taken, but also encouraged to ask questions to better understand how and why those measures were being taken.
Plans Need to Evolve
The U.S. Xpress crisis management team realized quickly that constant adjustments in any response plan were needed. The team held regular meetings with every department in the fleet to prioritize and reprioritize projects or workload to ensure it was focused on business-critical work, Thompson says.
“You just can’t develop a plan and call it a day,” Maus says. “A crisis is always changing, evolving and growing. Unfortunately, a crisis tends to get worse before things start to get better. And you have to constantly adjust your plan to meet changing conditions on the ground. You’re always learning during a crisis. But those lessons are useless unless you apply them effectively.”
As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, we can hope that the pandemic will soon be looked back upon as one of trucking’s finest hours for the role it played in keeping the country supplied in a very dark hour.
But it is also apparent that the fleets that performed the best and will emerge from this crisis in the best possible shape were the ones that had crisis plans and teams in place to act decisively and quickly. Even now, those teams are taking the lessons learned during the hard year that just ended and looking to apply them to the next crisis, which is somewhere just over the horizon.