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How FedEx countered Sandy with an army of meteorologists and a mass evacuation of planes

Superstorm Sandy has snarled businesses around the East Coast. Public transportation has been shut down in areas including New York City, and roads have been closed–making it hard for business to get around and for their staffs to get to their offices and shops. As of Wednesday morning, there were still over 6 million customers without power.

Many businesses can curtail their operations, or carry on by having staff work remotely from their homes. But others–like shipping giant Fedex–don’t have those options, and need to operate in the run-up to and the wake of major storms.

Quartz spoke with Fedex spokesman Scott Fiedler about how the shipper is navigating the logistical challenges of getting its workers and packages around the storm-stricken area. (The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.)

Quartz: Take us through the planning process–how does Fedex prepare for storms like Sandy?

Scott Fiedler: We have basically two mantras: our priority is our people, our team members…and then our assets. We started two weeks ago, [before the storm was] down in the Caribbean. We had spent that first week briefing our team members on our emergency procedures. That includes managers having working group meetings, call chains, getting emergency contact numbers, knowing if you were to be evacuated where you would be evacuated to. That way we can keep up with our folks and know that they’re safe.

Then we start preparing the facilities. That is, making sure that we have power, if we’re going to have back-up generators. We’ve got equipment vehicles parked. We’ll have planes moved out of the area; for example, on this storm we moved all the aircraft out so we had no aircraft damage whatsoever. We started securing the facilities, boarding things up, and securing any customer shipments within (facilities), moving any equipment from low-lying areas…

Then as the storm approaches we instruct our employees to heed local authorities. If they say evacuate, we highly suggest they evacuate, follow those instructions.

After the storm we start immediately with our call chains. Management and leadership are reaching out to the team. By that time we provide relief supplies for our employees nearer to the strike area, so we are giving [them] ice and food and water because our employees are going to need these things when our power’s out. We have our safety department, which has continual messaging. We have our website where they post information about how to prepare for a disaster what to do post-disaster, cleaning up your yards, houses.

As soon as it’s safe to resume operations, we’ll start asking people to come in. A lot of folks have ride shares, carpools already set up so they know where to swing by to get folks to bring them in. Locations that have power, connectivity–either through our own generators or the city’s–will begin sorting, and then moving packages out to customers to make deliveries and pick-ups.

That’s the short version, but it will last over a week and will probably run into the post-event when people start to get power back on.

Quartz: How do you factor in employees not getting to work?

SF: The phrase you have to understand is “that depends.” For example with [Hurricane] Katrina, when the infrastructure was completely wiped out, you had no power, no water, no food, and there was basically no infrastructure whatsoever, and the people who lived there had to evacuate. Then we brought people in on a volunteer basis to run routes, live out of trailers, and keep the business running, keep the logistics going that way.

Now up in the Northeast, the storm was 1,000 miles wide. So that ran all the way down from Virginia up to Boston. So what we thought was take two fingers, put them on the map, and go all the way up to Buffalo. Philadelphia, Buffalo, Allentown, Newburg–we’re going to say to all those folks, “You are potentially affected. You are going to get the [safety] communication. You are going to start preparing for the hurricane worst-case scenario and start building your operations plans.”

Now in Philly, you’re going to start operating a little differently than you will in Allentown, because of the type of business the size of the city the number of routes. Each operations plan is going to be slightly different, so the number of employees that you would need to start the business back up, get back out on the road, picking up and delivering will change. There isn’t any set guide–you know, we need 15 people or 50 people–it’s going to be dependent on where you’re at.

Quartz: With air service only starting today in NY — and still not even at La Guardia Airport — and roads being closed for a long period of time, is that all part of the contingency plan?

SF: Correct. We start layering service back in. We’re not so worried about the airports just opening now, because we have been moving volume up via truck because the roads, the highways were open and passable, and you hold volume outside, or customer shipments outside, the affected area so you can truck them in. For things on the Express side, if the airport didn’t open, we would continue trucking in additional freight and then waiting till the airports open…

The major thing now is that it seems like in localized pockets [in the tri-state area] and in the Greater New York area–though we are making pickups and deliveries–until the city’s transportation and infrastructure resumes normal service, customers should expect delays.

Quartz: Will this eat into Fedex profits, increase operating costs? Or is this something you expect? You know that hurricanes may or may not hit the Northeast and that’s factored into your costs for the year?

SF: It is difficult to say, but we are currently assessing the impact.

Quartz: Is there anything odd about this particular storm, that you haven’t seen at other times?

SF: We do do this regularly. We have about 40 years of experience in handling these types of situations. We had Irene last year, Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the Bali earthquake & tsunami, so we’ve got a good solid plan in place. We’ve got excellent leadership to implement the contingency plans. We protect the safety of our employees, and that comes first. We don’t approach this storm as different from any other hurricane. They’re all planned for and taken seriously.

Quartz: Does a storm, a hurricane in this instance, have to be of a certain magnitude or category to concern you?

SF: We have a full weather team here. We have about 14 meteorologists who track weather throughout the world, and they give us a heads up on, you know, this system is going to be an issue. Because, for example, we didn’t know if this storm was going to go to Florida. We prepare folks all the way up from the Florida Keys all the way up the coast through Boston. It missed Florida, and it missed kind of the Outer Banks there, and then it took a hard left into Atlantic City. So everyone was prepared all the way up and down the coast. We take every hurricane–even flooding here in the Midwest–we take natural disasters seriously.

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