Vehicle ops' balancing act keeps mission moving

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
Picture performers spinning ceramic plates on thin poles, constantly watching, moving and adjusting to make sure the fragile disks stay balanced and rotating. One wrong move or lack of attention could easily cause the plates to tumble before shattering into pieces on the ground.

The same concept of spinning plates is applied by a small group of people assigned to the 55th Mission Support Group's Logistics Distribution Division here to keep about 20,000 requests each year from falling by the way side.

Between aircrew transportation, base shuttle runs, distinguished visitor transportation, loaner vehicle sign out and large event support, the 22 people assigned to vehicle operations are "incredibly busy," said Sean Patomson, chief of LDD's vehicle operations and lead plate spinner. "There are peaks and valleys obviously, but we do 19,000 or 20,000 reservations each year."

Because of the heavy workload, efficiency is the name of the game, he said, "and being able to do things with the minimum amount of manpower."

The vehicle operators, guided by Mr. Patomson and work leader Michael Wangberg, use 13 different shifts, a fleet of about 65 vehicles and a detailed work schedule to meet Offutt's transportation needs.

"(Having so many different shifts) is the only way we can operate 24/7 and cover all of the (work) peaks ... we can't just split drivers into thirds for typical day, swing and mid shifts," Mr. Patomson said. "We've got to put the manpower where the workload is."

The unit's key focus is supporting an intense flying mission, Mr. Patomson said, which sometimes makes it difficult to take care of other customer needs.

"We do sometimes have to give customers NVAs or no vehicle available notices to take back with them to their squadron to use as justification to rent (from a civilian agency)," he said. "Or, we may have to file a reservation as NMA or no manning available."

A typical example of this would be a commercial terminal transportation run, Mr. Patomson said.

"I can't use overtime to support airport runs because it's too costly once you introduce the added costs ... so those (requests) get jettisoned off the work schedule more than anything unfortunately," he explained.

"Sometimes we do have to sacrifice distinguished visitor runs because aircrews come first," said Mark "Gus" Gustafson, day shift dispatcher.

For the most part, however, customers understand when this happens, Mr. Gustafson added.

"It's one of the painful parts of my job," he said. "(Customers) aren't happy about it but they do understand that the (aircrew) mission comes first."

Because the section receives so many requests for support, the earlier a customer can submit a requirement the better, Mr. Gustafson said.

"A week is nice but a couple of days are about all we need," he said. "But, the bigger the event, the more time is necessary."

For example, vehicle operators have already begun planning for conferences in the next couple of months and Offutt's annual open house in August.

Offutt's vehicle fleet includes standard buses, trucks, vans, sedans, tractor trailers and two tow trucks.

Vehicle operations here is unique in that all vehicles are under warm storage in Bldg. D, Mr. Patomson said, which often extends the life of the vehicles.

"If our vehicles were outdoors most of the year, it would be hard to keep them clean and serviceable," he said. "Having them out of the elements is a huge bonus."

With time and mileage, Offutt's vehicles are periodically replaced using an annual buy process through Air Combat Command and Air Force headquarters. The vehicle operations fleet is currently valued at a couple of million dollars, Mr. Patomson said.

In addition to vehicle changes every year or two, the personnel makeup today looks very different than it did several years ago, said Mr. Patomson, who arrived here in 1995 as an active-duty master sergeant.

He retired from the Air Force in early 2003, just as the Most Efficient Organization concept was taking hold and cutting manpower by more than 50 percent while converting all remaining jobs in the section to civilian positions.

After being hired as a civilian, Mr. Patomson got down to business, accomplishing basically the same job as he'd been doing as a senior NCO but with the addition of "growing pains."

"Initially, it was difficult to make the transition," he said, "... going from 64 people in the flight to 25 with the same workload was a struggle. But, we honed (the job) to a finely tuned machine most days. There are still some times when it feels like were spinning plates on sticks though."

"We're very good at juggling (requirements)," Mr. Gustafson added.

The unit's support rate is evidence of that. The unit is chartered to stay above a 97-percent support rate. Mr. Patomson said Offutt's vehicle operators typically are between a rate of 98.5 and 99.5 percent.

Although the section processes thousands of requests each year, the personnel in the unit stay focused on each individual customer.

"We can do 20,000 requests a year but every customer is different," Mr. Patomson said. "And, if you're late arriving with a bus for one specific customer, (he or she) can get quite upset.

"It's important to be on time every time because you can ruin a good reputation with just one late arrival," the section chief said.