One of the most difficult tasks fleet managers routinely face is moving over-sized loads or heavy equipment from one location to another.
In a word, the job is dangerous. To haul heavy loads safely takes the right equipment, the right driver, the right load securement, the right routes, the right escorts, the right permits, the right license, the right insurance, and strict adherence to the right regulations, which can change from state to state.
With all these "rights" playing into the picture, there is little wiggle room for a "wrong." One call from one driver with a tall load stuck under a bridge is a real attention-getter.
In fact, among the most difficult loads to transport, according to Darrell Hendrix, vice president of operations for Specialized Transport Services, a company that specializes in heavy hauling, are tall loads. "They're more difficult than wide ones because you have to push wires and traffic lights up so the cargo can slip under them."
Hendrix said his company normally puts skid poles on top of the load. "The wires hit the skid poles and ride up over the load," he said. "However, in states where loads in excess of 18 feet, for example, are allowed, the transporter is required to have bucket trucks that go along with the load. When you get to a wire, or a traffic light, the bucket trucks push the wire up for you to get under it."
Hendrix uses private companies for the bucket truck escorts, but when traffic lights are involved, he said, he calls on bucket trucks from municipal fleets.
Although loads stuck under a bridge make interesting scenarios for comedy writers, in reality they are anything but funny, said David T. Doss, CEM, equipment maintenance supervisor, City of Virginia Beach Public Utilities Department.
"I've known contractors to literally go bankrupt because they hit a $15 million bridge," he says. "That will wipe you out. That is why communications between the truck driver and the escort vehicle in front of him is critical.
"Cell phones are not considered as proper communications," he says. "You have to use CB, or two-way radios, for back and forth communication."
When escorts are required, "you have a set of eyes in front of you and a set of eyes behind you," he says. "This also applies to dump-truck drivers as well as drivers pulling low boys. For example, if you have a dump truck pulling a 20-ton tag trailer loaded with a backhoe, and that dump's destination is a subdivision, you need a co-worker in a utility truck to go ahead of you. The co-worker checks to see if there is limited turning space. For the dump truck driver — and the fleet manager — it's nice to know he won't jack knife the trailer and start snapping lines left and right trying to turn around."
Doss also pays attention to the 14-hour rule for drivers, and the terrain they'll be moving over. A move across flat terrain will be less stressful than one that traverses hills, he says. "[If the driver is] coming down the hills of West Virginia, he's having nightmares about brake fires as he comes down the other side of a hill."
Transporting heavy equipment safely is actually a combination of man and machine, and fleet managers agree that both are critical.
"You don't just go out and buy a tractor and trailer to haul this stuff," says Ricky Aubin, transportation supervisor at Cajun Equipment Services. "The brand of the truck doesn't matter. What's important is how it is set up to pull. For instance, with an 80-ton trailer, you don't want a truck with a high gear ratio. You'll tear the truck up. You might have a three- to four-axle low boy loaded with a 12-axle or 13-axle machine. You have to know what the weight of the machine is and what you can scale out in each state. Each state differs in what it considers legal weight.
"Just the tractor and trailer alone is an investment of about $250,000. And that doesn't count the price of the equipment you are transporting."
At Cajun, driver training takes top priority. Aubin says driver training is intensive and covers everything from keeping the right distance from the vehicle in front of you to load securement training, which includes how to load different types of cargo, how to put loads on a trailer, how to chain them down properly, and how to deal with load distribution.
As for behind-the-wheel training, Cajun puts each driver through an annual update on skills by using a simulator similar to airline pilot training simulators. "The simulator comes in here once a year and we put drivers through an eight-hour course," he says. "They have to review and update their skills every year."
Aubin looks for drivers with at least five years of hauling heavy equipment, although he concedes they are hard to find.
"Most guys who know how to do it and have done it for years stay with the same company and don't leave," he says. "Companies make sure they keep drivers around. I know I try to keep my experienced drivers happy so they don't want to go somewhere else."
Robert Andrade, CEM, vice president of equipment asset management for Parsons Construction, also looks for experienced drivers.
"Drivers must be trained," he says. "When I say trained, I'm talking about people with five years experience or more. Hauling heavy equipment has too much liability associated with it. In fact, I don't let junior people around these loads."
Training goes beyond just knowing what to do behind the wheel, according to Doss.
"They need to be aware of the rules pertaining to hauling the loads, aware of load securement laws, learn what permits you have to contend with in the operation of the truck, learn the materials that you need to do the hauling, and learn about weight distribution of the load," he says. "There are quite a lot of factors involved."
Of all the safety precautions involved with moving heavy equipment, two of the most critical are making sure the loadis secure, said Aubin.
"Drivers have to know how many chains to put on a machine and where to put them to hold the machine to the trailer," he says. "The second most important thing is knowing how to transport the load down the highway after you leave with it. You have to know where you are and what you can and cannot do."
Haulers should be aware of their route before leaving. Doss recommends a pre-trip inspection because "after you do leave, your name is on the contract and you are responsible for that rig when you are on the roadway."
"You should run your routes in advance to make sure the load dimensions are correct in relations to the route limitations or unique obstructions," Andrade says. "There are always situations where the load may be a little higher or lower than it should be. If the driver gets into a tough spot by surprise, he can't back up, so he needs to know how to get out and strip the cargo, if necessary."
Despite the risks, liabilities and training involved with moving heavy equipment, many fleet managers shoulder the burden themselves, rather than outsourcing the moves, says Hendrix at Specialized Transport Services. Outsourcing is an option when the fleet manager's own trucks are not in the right place when they need the equipment moved, or if they're too busy to keep up with the volume. With companies that don't own their own trucks, Hendrix said, the reasons vary.
"Many don't want to be in the trucking business," he says. "They don't want to have to deal with drivers, permitting or insurance," he says. "Some of our customers have enough volume to have a fleet of 20 trucks, but they choose to outsource the hauling."
Other times, he says, "We're like the fire department. Sometimes fleets try to cover the loads themselves because they don't want to hire them out, and the next thing you know, they've gotten behind and they're calling us, saying we need a truck today."
Doss says he considers several things when deciding whether or not to keep a heavy equipment move in-house. He looks at the size of the load, whether escorts will be needed or not, the location and distance of the haul, and whether the type of load is conventional, hazardous material or a super load.
He also considers circumstances. "If something happens in the wee hours of the morning and I've got everybody out, or if my drivers have reached their hour limitations, then I will outsource the haul. I'll put it on a private carrier."
Andrade moves his own heavy equipment. Although it's less expensive to do heavy hauling in-house, he does it because he can control the logistics.
"You have to have a maintenance crew when the shipment arrives. When you have control of the trucks, you know people are going to be there when it arrives."
"From a proactive standpoint, you need to know where the load is, when it's going to get there and when it will go back in service," he says. "When you outsource that responsibility, some brokers use drivers who are owner operators. We've had drivers take off — literally — and go home for the weekend and disappear. If you're moving a crane, for instance, you might have nine or 10 loads, so you can't have one disappear. This could hold up reassembly, thus delay an entire crew of men, trucks and assist mobilization equipment."
Aubin also finds confidence in having control over drivers. "You know the drivers and their capabilities and know if they can or cannot haul that particular piece of equipment," he says. "Our drivers go through rigorous safety programs, driving programs, are trained thoroughly on how to chain down each piece of equipment, so by making the move yourself you feel safer. I get a better feeling when our guys haul our equipment."
Due to Cajun's experienced drivers, the company also hauls for other companies, which makes up about 50 percent of Cajun's total hauls.
"We haul for local contractors and for out-of-state companies," Aubin says. "We do a lot of moving from one state to another."
Aubin lists three keys to successfully implementing in-house hauling. Set up all the infrastructure, including insurance, permits, liability and other paper work. Second, have the right equipment for the right job. Finally, make sure you have qualified drivers.
Across the board, fleet professionals interviewed do not use drivers who are designated for the sole purpose of moving heavy equipment. These drivers are also used for other truck-related functions.
"I don't have one driver specifically set up to haul just one thing," Aubin says. "My guys are diversified. They can haul flatbed, goose necks, haul heavy equipment, and most of them can operate the equipment they haul." Often, there's no one other than the driver to load or off-load the machine.
Taking some of the risk out of the risk management of moving heavy equipment safely is, not surprisingly, technology that has quickly evolved throughout the industry.
"Safety has come a long way, and the job now is easier due to truck and trailer technology," Aubin says. Now we have GPS, we have hydraulic necks on low boys instead of the old manual type that you had to fold down. Everything has gone to hydraulics and air. Technology not only has made the job easier, it has made the job faster and more efficient. You can get in there, get the job done, and get out."
GPS makes it easier on everyone, Doss says. "If a driver has to take a detour off the Interstate, you put in the new information and it reroutes you so you won't lose any time. But the federal government is now saying these devices could cause the driver to be distracted, just as cell phones do. I'm sure laptop computers will be next on their list. In the meantime, it would probably be a good idea for drivers to pull off at a rest stop to make the changes or to check their e-mail. But that brings you back to the time factor, and time is money."
Also, Doss said, crash ratings on the vehicles are higher now, and aerodynamics is better, which saves fuel. "Everything is pretty much electronic," he says. "Not only is the equipment itself better, but truck ergonomics make it easier on the drivers. Today they're not getting beat to a pulp behind the wheel."
Scheduling and logistics differ by company size, Andrade says, and preparing for a haul differs by piece of equipment.
"In some companies, one person may handle it all. Another company may have a team of people, with different people having different areas of responsibility in relation to the complexity of the loads.
"[Preparation] could take up to a week, which is an average time for a heavy load, or it could take three weeks for multiple, super-sized loads, coordinating maintenance assembly crews, the entire process can be a long time."
Moving heavy equipment is risky business from any view point, not the least of which, said Andrade, is dealing with the public. "There is always a lot of liability in that," he said. "It's one of the riskiest things a fleet manager can do."