by Ingrid Phaneuf, James Menzies and Katy de Vries

TORONTO, Ont. – Trucking companies, more than anyone, know how to keep the supply chain running – no matter what. And at no time was that more apparent than during the power outage that struck Ontario Aug. 14, an outage that plunged an estimated 50 million people across Ontario and the northeastern U.S. into darkness.

But while public servants and many private companies simply shrugged and closed down for the duration of the outage, trucking companies kept on truckin’ – supplying everything from coffee to medical supplies and fuel to those in need.

Many carriers even went above and beyond the call of duty, lending a helping hand where they could.

Toronto-based Source Medical, a company that specializes in just-in-time deliveries to hospitals, were forced to do what they could to keep the supply chain running smoothly.

Company drivers and dispatchers lent a hand and worked overtime to work by flashlight in warehouses where medical supplies, such as surgical masks and rubber gloves, awaited pickup and delivery.

“We even rented a reefer for one hospital that needed it for the food,” said company official Nicole Menard.

“We couldn’t pick up the skids because we lacked the power for the machinery to do it, but we were able to provide smaller items, like heart valves.”

Dynamex, a courier service with four branches in Ontario, managed to keep deliveries going for Canadian Blood Services.

“They have a 24-hour window to test the blood before it can be used, so we sent it to Calgary for testing instead of Toronto,” said Jim Aitken vice-president and Canadian general manager.

Bulk petroleum haulers were also kept busy as the lights went out. Todd Stauffer, general manager of operations with Harmac Transportation, said his company had a hectic weekend.

“One of the key issues we had, especially when the power started coming back up was that (gas stations) ended up moving a lot of product out of the service stations that you couldn’t replace right away,” said Stauffer. “There seemed to be a little bit of panic-buying going on.”

One challenge facing trucking companies was getting in touch with drivers.

“There were some real communication issues,” said Stauffer. But when one region of Harmac’s terminals regained power, dispatchers from other offices were relocated there, he said. The company’s dispatch staff then worked 24 hours a day throughout the ordeal. And Stauffer said many of the off-duty drivers showed up to see how they could help out.

“I’m very proud of my group,” said Stauffer. “We called in every driver we could get in, of course always being cognizant of hours-of-service. Safety always remained the top priority.”

Even though Harmac was definitely slowed down by the power outage, the company was able to keep the wheels turning.

“We couldn’t load, but we took orders and prioritized the best we could (during the outage),” Stauffer said.

Don Smith, assistant manager of Canada Cartage, told Truck News the company moved 20 loads of water in collaboration with Home Depot who was giving bottled water away around the GTA.

And when the lights went out in Oshawa, Ont., Mackie Moving Systems’ giant Cat generator kicked in and the trucking firm kept operating at full capacity. It wasn’t long before Durham Regional Police came looking for diesel fuel to keep their main communications facilities operating.

“A couple of our dispatchers and our company drivers really stepped up to the plate,” said CEO Ross Mackie. “We delivered 4,000 to 5,000 litres to three police stations in Oshawa, Pickering and Port Perry, as well as the water treatment plant on Ritson Road and about three nursing homes in Durham Region.”

Mackie accomplished this task by using company tractors with full fuel tanks. The tractors were given a police escort and their fuel was pumped off into waiting diesel generators. Penske Oshawa was also involved in the effort and sent along a service truck to the delivery points to operate an external pump.

Kriska Transportation of Prescott, Ont., was prepared when the outage struck because they were caught in the 1998 Eastern Ontario ice storm and had since invested in a back-up generator system.

“We had about 10 to 12 reefer units out there throughout Eastern Ontario for some of the grocery stores and restaurants as well as one of the hospitals in Brockville which keeps some of its supplies refrigerated,” said Perkins. “We were glad to help out, it was nice that we had the equipment ready and available because the alternative for them was to lose a lot of product and a lot of dollars,” said Glen Perkins, Kriska’s vice-president of fleet and safety.

“We learned from our experiences a few years back and so our computers were only down for 15 minutes or so until we got our generators running. We took the just-in-case measures and I’m glad we did.”

Kriska’s Mississauga, Ont., plant was down for an extended period of time, but the headquarters in Prescott, tried to maintain business as usual.

When the lights finally did come back on, carriers like Kriska had to scramble to make deliveries the companies which could not take deliveries of their orders during the outage.

“We certainly lost miles and revenue and productivity because many of our customers had shut down operations and we do a lot of business in the Greater Toronto Area, so we couldn’t deliver freight and our yards were backed up and there were border delays and so financially, it did hurt us, as it did for everyone I suspect,” said Perkins.

TDL, the carrier for Tim Hortons dry goods, scrambled to keep Ontario Tims stocked with coffee, said Bruce Wallace, vice-president of logistics.

“It was a nightmare, but everyone rose to the challenge. Everyone was on call. And our drivers are so focussed on customer service – they knew they had to get the loads out as soon as possible,” Wallace said.

Robert Transport’s Brampton, Ont. terminal had more of a challenge maintaining its operations.

“It put us about two days behind, and because we run a 24-hour operation and deliver around the clock, we are inundated with deliveries now,” said David Dunfy, Brampton terminal manager for Robert Transport.

Dunfy said their drivers worked a great deal on the weekend, trying to make up for deliveries that didn’t get done on Thursday and Friday.

“JIT delivery was very much affected by the power outage, especially since much of our customer base is in the food industry, however, it isn’t just the transportation industry that has been so greatly affected, I think all industries will be faced with the same challenges,” Dunfy said.

Dunfy also mentioned that customers realize the extent of the power problem and are experiencing the same frustrations, so they have been understanding about the delivery delays.

“Rather than using the term ‘black out’, we are finding that customers respond a lot better when you say the ‘declared state of emergency’ as it sort of sheds a bigger scope on things and it reminds them that everyone is playing catch up right now,” said Rick Robertson, Toronto terminal manager for Concord Transportation.

Like Kriska, Concord’s operations were also continuous throughout the two-day outage.

“We had a skeleton crew on the road, and a back up generator system at our location and we were still providing a bit of service out there, which was kind of neat,” said Robertson. “Deliveries were almost impossible but some of our shippers still wanted freight off their docks, they didn’t care if it actually went anywhere but they wanted it out of their hands so they could go home and battle the darkness with their families.”

Robertson said the biggest challenge for Concord was to get fuel for the drivers who hadn’t yet fueled up, and trying to avoid getting stuck out on the road somewhere.

“Things returned to normal a lot quicker than I had anticipated they would, and I’m very pleased with the operation and the crew here did a great job too,” Robertson said. “I’ve been here for four years and I always walked by our big clunky generator and wondered why we have it – now I know why it is a very worthy investment.”

As for transborder transportation problems due to the blackout, apparently there were very few.

Dennis Murphy, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, told the Associated Press there was a minimal effect on border crossings between the nations.

The Detroit-Windsor tunnel linking Michigan to Ontario was only closed for about 30 minutes after the blackout occurred, AP said.

But as a precaution, border patrols were stepped up. As of press time, the Ontario Trucking Association had yet to announce an estimate as to just how much the power outage may have cost the industry in terms of economic fallout.

Carriers certainly couldn’t be penalized if personnel weren’t on hand to take delivery of loads, pointed out Mark Brennan, vice-president of sales and marketing for Highland Transport, based in Markham.

According to Brennan, Highland was able to continue to operate thanks to cell phones and a dispatch office in Montreal.

But that didn’t mean Highland customers were open for pick-up or delivery.

“We ended up keeping a lot of the stuff we’d already picked up in our trailers,” Brennan said.

But clearly the outage has cost carriers something, and not only extra man-hours.

The cost of fuel skyrocketed as supply problems teamed up with high demand.

Prices crept upwards in most Canadian cities, as high crude oil costs and supply problems enhanced by the blackout ran headlong into intense seasonal demand.

Similar price increases were seen in the United States. Seven major North American refineries – five in Ontario alone – were impacted for nearly a week by the power blackout. Add to that the war in Iraq, and a major pipeline rupture in Arizona in July and you’ve got a full-blown supply problem.

As for the effect of the blackout on the general economy, the energy crisis gripping Ontario had the power to damage the already challenged Canadian economy, economists warned in a Canadian Press news report. Don Drummond, a former senior federal finance official, predicted the outage would reduce Canada’s gross domestic product numbers for August by up to half a percentage point – the equivalent of one and a half percentage point in Ontario.

Drummond’s team examined Ontario’s private sector and tried to determine how much the province’s economic production was down as a result of the outage. Early numbers from the retail sector indicated significant losses, Drummond told Canadian Press.

Credit card and bank debit card transactions dropped 29 per cent in one week compared to transactions from the week before the blackout. And retail outlets showed drops in sales of 40 per cent compared to purchases made on the week before the power failure.

It appeared the only thing keeping the retail sector afloat in Ontario during the black out was consumers buying gasoline and stocking up on supplies from convenience stores, Drummond said. Supplies and fuel that were delivered via truck, it almost goes without saying.

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