Zero Hour

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What happens when disaster strikes and your shipment never makes it? Time stops for a brief moment ... then the clock starts ticking and the phones start ringing. What do you do? How should your vendors and carriers respond? Read this gripping fictional account of one carrier dealing with the unexpected. The story may be make-believe, but the consequences are no less real.

The accident scene was chaotic.

Flashing red lights on highway patrol cars...flares blocking lanes...patrolmen waving traffic slowly down the car pool lane...TV news choppers overhead...a truck cab tipped, leaning against a metal fence, the trailer half crushed, covered with dust and cement debris from a partially collapsed overpass. Another vehicle was on its side.

Across town, Buzz Davis, logistics manager for Amicus Trucking Company, had been attending an L.A. terminal meeting. He was now on his way back to the office humming oldies music along with his radio. His kind of music.

In the middle of Louie, Louie, his pager went off. Buzz grabbed his cell phone and called the number to hear an agitated Billie Bonine, manager of operations. A company truck with a 48-foot trailer had been in an accident on Interstate 405.

"Do we know what happened?" Buzz asked. "Anybody hurt?"

"I've been talking with dispatch." Billie said. "The highway patrol called them. Sounds like our driver is OK. Don't know yet about anyone else who might have been involved."

The driver had called his terminal manager to say the trailer was heavily damaged. All he could remember was seeing another van or truck in the distance weaving back and forth on the other side of freeway, crossing the median, and crashing into a post beneath an overpass. The Amicus driver had made it out from under the underpass, but the trailer didn't.

"That's good news about the driver. Do we know what was on the truck?" Davis asked.

"Dispatch says it included a mix of home appliances. Like the trailer, they may be pretty much finished."

Billie said that Gene Calloway, manager of maintenance and safety, had sent his safety supervisor, Jim O'Brien, to the scene.

"Buzz, can you join the rest of the crisis team in the conference room in 30 minutes?"

"Sure, I will be at the office in about 15. I'll have my assistant start getting more details on that shipment."

After 25 years in the Air Force, Davis had retired as a Colonel. He began in materials procurement and worked most of his career with equipment supply for airbase operations and maintenance for everything from fighter aircraft to B-52s. After two years with Amicus he had achieved a solid reputation as a logistics expert and frequent troubleshooter.

Bonine had joined Amicus a year before after 15 years with a freight company in South Carolina. He was still adjusting to Los Angeles.

For the crisis team base of operation, Billie had already turned the conference room into a command center with five phones and conference call capability. A fax machine and copier were nearby. There was also a television set with a VCR to monitor news coverage.

Realizing there would be strong news interest, Billie then called Steve Patrick, public relations manager. Patrick was the designated co-chair of the crisis management team. Billie was to coordinate overall operational response. Steve would take the lead on communications.

"Steve, what's happening with the news media?" Billie asked. "Only one contact so far, KNX News. Both office televisions are showing news/traffic choppers circling the accident scene and broadcasting that there is a SigAlert."

"A what?" asked Billie.

"A SigAlert. Around here that's the term when traffic stops because of blocked lanes."

"They call traffic problems with crazy drivers something else back home," chimed Billie. "Amateur night in Dixie."

Steve laughed. He told Billie what he found intriguing was that some media were more focused on how an overpass could have suffered so much damage. Many overpasses had been reinforced following recent earthquakes. Maybe this one missed out.

"Oh, and I've sent Samantha to the scene to work with the media." Samantha Kelly was Patrick's second in command. She had come from one of the major airlines, and had experience with a local TV station that would come in handy when television became a major factor. In L.A., that was a foregone conclusion.

Steve asked Billie if Ed had been notified.

"I called him out of a meeting with the marketing department going over the proposed vendor satisfaction survey. What timing."

Ed Brown was the CEO, and had been with the company for about 20 years, the last three as head guy. Brown's first reaction was that he wanted a meeting of key players right away to move on the situation.

J im O'Brien and Samantha Kelly maneuvered around the traffic mess to arrive at the accident scene about the same time. A highway patrolman told them they had to keep moving until they said they were with Amicus Trucking.

"You can only get so close to the accident scene. There's debris all over, cars backed up, and a fuel spill. We've called for hazmat assistance."

Before leaving his office, O'Brien had contacted the hazmat company under contract with Amicus to respond if the highway patrol needed help.

"Do you have any information on our driver?" Jim asked.

"Oh yeah, he's over there with the paramedics in the back of that ambulance. Seems OK. But your truck is a total loss. So is the other vehicle, a big travel trailer of some kind. The driver of that vehicle is on his way to the hospital. He's more seriously hurt but should survive."

Jim wanted to know if the patrolman had any idea what happened. "As part of the investigation, we'll want to talk to both drivers. Right now we're just trying to get the situation under control and somehow keep the traffic flow moving."

Samantha and Jim went over to their driver and chatted for a couple of minutes. Still a little groggy, he told them pretty much what he had relayed to his terminal manager.

O'Brien thought he should call Bonine and Calloway and fill them in. "Billie, Jim. I'm at the accident site here with Sam Kelly."

For the next few minutes he reviewed what he'd seen and had been told by the driver and the highway patrol.

"OK, Jim. Keep us informed. We'll also be working with Buzz on what to do about the shipper involved. Oh, and Steve says the media are circling. Any of them on the ground there?"

"Yeah, one television crew. And they have cornered Kelly. Glad she's here. I hate microphones being shoved in my face. We'll be in touch."

The key players on the crisis team were arriving at the "command center." Several had their crisis manuals in tow, compiled after a tabletop crisis drill a year before.

Gathering around the conference table were Patrick; Agnes Andrews, manager of marketing; John Billings, CFO; Gene Calloway; and Davis. Martin O'Hare, manager of human resources, had not arrived.

John Cooley, legal counsel, scowled at the TV monitor showing one station's chopper view of the accident scene. "Damn vultures."

Dressed in his usual navy suit, Cooley was a corporate lawyer from way back. He had come to Amicus from a defunct telecommunications company. The media coverage of that disaster had formed his dark side attitude toward the press.

In walked Ed Brown getting an update from Billie. Brown was about a foot taller than Bonine, who seemed to be looking straight up as he talked and walked.

Taking his seat at the far end of the conference table, Brown got the ball rolling.

"OK, Billie, what do we know?"

Billie covered the information they had received from dispatch and O'Brien.

Brown wanted to know the exact status of injuries or fatalities.

Billie said O'Brien confirmed there were no fatalities, just a big mess on the freeway. Fortunately, the company's driver didn't seem to be hurt, only a bit shaken. The driver of the other vehicle was on his way to the hospital.

"Billie, who is our driver?" Agnes asked.

"Fella by the name of Ralph Plumb. Been with us more than 10 years. We recently recognized him for having one million miles of safe driving. From what we know, it doesn't sound like he was at fault in any way."

Brown then asked Davis what he knew about the contents of the truck and the customers involved.

After Bonine's call, Davis said his office had checked for more detail with dispatch. The shipment included washers, dryers, microwaves, and other appliances from an outfit called Smeetz Distribution in Tracy, outside San Francisco.

"Apparently Smeetz is the California distributor for Dickens Electric out of Omaha. About a year ago, marketing signed Smeetz—it had recently designated Amicus as a core carrier."

"The truck was on its way from Tracy to the San Diego terminal to make delivery for the Friendly Al chain of appliance stores," noted Agnes.

Davis added, "Agnes and I tried to call her contact at Smeetz but he was out." Looking at his watch, Davis said he should be back by now.

"Let's see if we can get Smeetz on the line," said Brown. "Better let him know firsthand what's going on and what we're doing. Agnes, call your contact and put us on conference."

Agnes dialed Ben Ratty, transportation manager for Smeetz.

"Ben Ratty's office."

"Hello, this is Agnes Andrews from Amicus Trucking. Is Mr. Ratty in?"

"Please hold on, he just walked in the door."

"Ben Ratty speaking."

"Ben, this is Agnes Andrews."

"Agnes, what can I do for you?"

"Ben, I'm at our L.A. offices with Ed Brown, our CEO, and several people on his staff. We have some bad news. The shipment of appliances that was on its way to San Diego has been involved in an accident. The trailer and the contents were heavily damaged when an overpass collapsed. It was hit by another vehicle."

There was heavy silence at the other end.

Finally, Ratty spoke.

"You've got to be kidding. How can an overpass collapse? Are you sure it was my shipment?"

"Yes, we matched the identification of our truck and dispatch information. It was the San Diego-bound shipment for, let me check my notes, Friendly Al's Appliances."

"Damn. The timing on this is really bad," Ratty said. "Earlier today I called Al Williams, the owner of those stores, to reassure him the shipment was on its way." He told me that was terrific news because his last quarter was so lousy. He was counting on these appliances for a big sale in about a week. Besides that, he told me he had spent a bundle promoting the sale to turn things around."

This time, there was a pause at the Amicus end as team members looked at each other.

Davis, Andrews, and Brown all started to talk at the same time. Ed said, "Go ahead, Buzz."

"Ben, this is Buzz Davis, I work closely with Agnes on shipment logistics. Do you know if you have inventory up your way to replace those damaged appliances?"

"I can tell you right now, no, we don't. The manufacturer in Omaha, Dickens Electric, gets the stuff to us to make on-time distribution to their California customers."

"Well, if that's the case, do you think they might have the appliances available in Omaha?"

"I know they've been running behind in their production schedules, but we might get lucky. I will definitely call to found out. Right now, I'm not sure who I'll call first, them or Williams in San Diego. Based on my earlier conversation with him, Williams is ... I know he's going to ... well, I don't know how he's going to react."

After a short pause and a very audible sigh on the other end, Ratty continued. "If I make a call and get positive news out of Dickens, what can you do for me?"

Ed Brown jumped in saying that if Dickens can provide the appliances Amicus will do what it must to get them to San Diego in time.

"In time?" asked Ratty.

"In time."

Sounding only half convinced, Ratty continued. "OK, I think I'll call Dickens before contacting Al. Maybe I can soften the impact with possible good news on inventory. I'll call you back with the information I hope I hear."

After Ratty hung up, Brown started.

"Well, folks, Agnes signed this vendor only a few months ago. Looking at the level of business he has given us, we don't want to lose him anytime soon. I know we couldn't control what happened with the truck. But if I were in Ratty's shoes, I wouldn't give a damn about our truck. My only concern would be keeping Friendly Al friendly."

Davis said that if Smeetz called back with positive news about the appliances, he and Agnes would work out the way to get them to San Diego.

Ed welcomed that note of determination which could, depending on what Ratty found out, become just a moot point. "OK, Ratty said he'd call back shortly. If it's good news on Omaha, we'll map out our strategy. While we're waiting, what other concerns do we have about what happened?"

Agnes indicated that if any other vendors heard about the accident and had questions, they could call the Amicus 800 number and the company would have people to respond. Customers could also check the web site for their shipment's tracking number.

Ed turned to Steve. "What about media coverage? This accident must be causing quite a stir."

"Well, L.A. TV is all over this. Anything that screws up the freeways gets their attention fast. What's interesting, as I told Billie, is that some of them are more focused on the damaged overpass than on our truck and the other vehicle. Samantha is on the scene with O'Brien to tell the media what we know."

Shedding his usual reserve Cooley testily said, "We don't have to tell them anything. Let the highway patrol handle it. We need to say as little as possible about what happened."

Steve countered, "John, I disagree. Samantha knows to stick with the facts as we know them. I guarantee legal will be in the loop on our dealings with the press."

Cooley furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. He always furrowed and pursed when he was unconvinced. He and Steve had their differences and still lacked mutual trust. PR thinks legal wants to say nothing. Legal thinks PR wants to tell everything.

Ed jumped in. "OK, we'll handle the media."

Just then, Martin O'Hare came into the room.

"Sorry I'm late. I didn't get called or paged. Got wind of the accident answering phone calls from a couple of wives checking on husbands. They'd seen the accident on TV and were worried. I told them we would work fast to ID the driver and hopefully relieve their worry."

Billie shoved a note to O'Hare with the driver's name. "He's OK. But he's going to a nearby hospital for a check," Billie said.

Steve said O'Hare's comments showed the need to let employees know what was going on.

O'Hare said he would work with Steve to put information out to employees.

Ed said, "Who else?"

Before anyone could answer, the telephone rang. It was Ben Ratty again.

"Well, I have good news and bad news. Dickens says they have most of the appliances available. But I have to tell you they were very upset, initially at me. I calmed them down. But, they have a real concern about whether you can handle this. Agnes convinced me you could promise overnight delivery between cities in California. But, how the hell are you going to get the stuff from Omaha to San Diego in time? Dickens kept asking me if maybe I should be looking for a Midwest company to do this?"

"Ben, Buzz Davis again, if you have the appliances, we'll get them to San Diego and in time."

Ed Brown chimed in. "Ben, we want to keep your business. I know from what you said, the accident was extremely unfortunate from a timing standpoint. But, we will do what we must to make it right with you. Please get the pickup information to Buzz and Agnes. We will work with you, your people in Omaha, and with your customer in San Diego."

"Another problem," Ratty added, "is that I am going to have to spend some bucks to get these appliances to replace the ones lost."

"Let me assure you, we will work with you on any claims considerations," Brown said.

"OK, I'll try to get back to you in a few minutes with the pickup information as to the appliances to be shipped, the pickup point, and a contact. Let me ask one more time. Are you sure you can do this?" Ratty added.

Davis said it would be taken care of. "Just get us the info and we'll go from there."

Ratty said he wanted regular updates as to what Amicus was doing now and over the next day, then hung up.

Brown chimed in. "Buzz, what's the scenario?"

"First, we'll work with Calloway to schedule a sleeper team and fly them to Omaha. Probably a day of traveling. We'll arrange to lease the right size truck to be waiting for them when they get there. Half day of loading, probably less, depending on the appliances involved. Then the trip from Omaha to San Diego. In the Air Force, I spent time at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha and remember checking the mileage to the West Coast. Seems like it was approximately 1,500 miles to California. With that distance, two drivers, two days of driving approximately. When did Ratty say the sales would take place?"

Agnes said she thought he said in about six or seven days. It would be tight, but doable.

"Folks, it must be doable. We said we would do it," Ed said. "Let's get the information from Smeetz and work out all the details."

Patrick noticed that Samantha Kelly was being interviewed on TV. Ed asked for the volume to be turned up. Sounded like the end of the interview as she was saying, "and we are grateful that our driver was not seriously injured. We will be cooperating with the highway patrol and other agencies to investigate this incident."

The reporter thanked Sam, then said, "We've been talking with Samantha Kelly of Amicus Trucking about an overpass truck accident on the 405. Fortunately, no fatalities were involved. Primarily a major tie up on the 405."

The telephone rang again. It was Ratty.

"I wanted to get back to you with the information you need. I also have Al Williams on the line. Called him with the news and he told me he needed to be in on this call."

Ed nodded to Davis to respond.

"Ben, Mr. Williams, this is Buzz Davis."

No response from Williams. Seemed to be waiting for the right news. "We have been reviewing the situation and our response," Davis said. "Ben, if you have the information, we can take it and get moving."

"Yes, I have it right here. But first, Al, you indicated earlier you wanted to say something."

"Well, yes. I guess what upsets me is that Ben said he used you folks because of your record of on-time service. In the past year I have had some shipments on other carriers. Two of them were so late and with so much damage my company really suffered. I can't have that this time. I just can't. I may be out of business."

"Mr. Williams, this is Ed Brown, CEO of Amicus. We have been able to work well with companies like Smeetz because of our historical reliability. I know you can appreciate that we could not control what happened this morning. But we can control how we respond to the problem."

"Ben tells me you think you can get the appliances from Omaha to San Diego in time for my sale. Ben also tells me you don't service Nebraska. Are you blowing smoke, or what?" Williams added.

Brown said Amicus has the capabilities to do what was needed. "We have the drivers, access to the right size trucks and trailers, and the determination to get it done."

Williams was quiet. Perhaps still waiting to be convinced.

He then said, "If we decide to go ahead with you people and you don't come through, I will be at the end of my rope. That's… that's all I have to say. Ben?"

Ratty came back on the line. "Al, these people have been very reliable. And considering the situation and what they are saying, they may be our best option. If you agree, I'll fax all the information Amicus needs to pick up the appliances and make the delivery to your stores. I also told them I wanted to be kept constantly informed."

With no negative comment from Williams, Ratty then hung up. Davis looked toward the others at the table, then toward Brown. Ed's response. "Let's do it."

During the next few days, Amicus Trucking worked with the news media to get them what they needed and make the accident a short-lived event; put information out to employees on the intranet along with a voice mail from Brown; sent a letter to shareholders with the facts; continued cooperation with the highway patrol and other agencies investigating the accident.

Andrews and Davis were in regular contact with Smeetz to keep them informed of the shipment's progress. The crisis team met regularly to coordinate their actions and to evaluate the crisis plan effectiveness.

And six days later, the manager of the Amicus Trucking terminal in San Diego bought a washer and dryer from Friendly Al.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Larry Pickett helps enterprises plan strategies for crisis management preparedness. While new to fiction, he has a broad range of experience in transportation and logistics-related crisis management. L.M. Pickett Associates can be reached at 661-587-8173; e-mail: lpickett@lightspeed.net; web site: www.LMPickett.com

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