Photo courtesy of AmeriGas The Toledo, Ohio AmeriGas Airborne Team.

Photo courtesy of AmeriGas
The Toledo, Ohio AmeriGas Airborne Team.

When unforeseen circumstances leave plants struggling to keep up with propane deliveries and serve customers, at AmeriGas, teamwork extends beyond area and regional boundaries through the company's “Airborne Team.”

The Airborne Team is a coordinated volunteer program to help deliver gas in areas hit by snow storms or hurricanes. As of mid-February, 51 Airborne volunteers had put in 765 days assisting 31 districts in need across 15 states.

As one of the nation’s largest propane marketers, AmeriGas has the ability to relocate people and assets from throughout the country to areas in need. For more than a decade, the Airborne program has allowed volunteers to help deliver gas in these hard-hit areas, catch up on backlogged tickets or answer phones in offices inundated by customer calls. This year was no different.

“Airborne primarily was for drivers, but this year we’re experiencing a need for service techs and CRRs (customer relations representative) as well,” says Supply Chain Vice President Kevin Rumbelow. With demand for propane soaring in response to colder-than-normal weather, CRRs have been instrumental in answering relentlessly ringing phones and entering in data from the high number of deliveries.

If You Can Drive a Truck, then Buckle Up

Generally, service techs deployed for Airborne assistance are those able to drive a bobtail and assist districts in dire need with deliveries. This year, for the first time, area safety advisors have also pitched in. “We have more than 40 area safety advisors who have been taken off their regular duties, and those who can drive were put into trucks,” Rumbelow says.

Service Tech Scott Rowitz, an Airborne volunteer from AmeriGas #1040, Jackson, Calif., and Area Safety Advisor Larry Loudermilk of Area 54 teamed up to make deliveries for Empiregas #7680 in Jeffersontown, Ky. The two met for the first time when they arrived at Empiregas, which had been struggling with the supply strain, and needed drivers to deliver to as many customers as possible once they had more supply coming in.

Loudermilk, a former district manager licensed to drive a bobtail, and Rowitz, who delivers on a snow route in California, teamed up to make deliveries despite snow-covered roads and driveways. Many deliveries required full hose pulls, and snow made access to a number of homes impossible, he reports.

Area Safety Advisor Tom Read of Area 52 spent two-and-a-half weeks doing service work for Heritage Propane #7068, Washington, Mo. “A great team works there. They were just trying to get through trying times and continue to provide the quality service their customers have come to expect from their crew,” Read says.

Mitigating Supply Problems

Meanwhile, a local news station in Missouri was running nightly stories about propane supply issues and customers who ran out of gas or received poor service. “It was unpleasant to see our industry portrayed in this negative light, but when I started doing the service work, the customers were extremely grateful and understood that we were doing everything possible to get them service when they need it,” Read says. “When it’s 10 below zero and a customer is out of gas to heat their home or needs service work done, the propane guy who shows up on a Sunday is a hero, not a bad guy.”

This is the first year Airborne employees were deployed as a result of supply issues, according to Rumbelow. In some states, districts only partially filled customers’ tanks to provide a limited amount of propane to as many customers as possible and keep them from running out of gas. When more supply became available, return trips to finish filling those tanks were added to an already packed delivery schedule, creating a need for help in making those deliveries.

Some locations were able to overcome the operational challenges with help from within their own areas or regions. But with this year’s widespread cold and supply challenges, Airborne assistance was in higher demand than usual.

Deploying Assistance

When a request for Airborne assistance is received by the coordinator of the program, the distribution department at the Valley Forge Field Service Center in Pennsylvania assesses a location’s forecast deliveries and low-fuels metrics, and monitors major weather events to determine if the situation can be handled with resources within the area or region, or if an Airborne deployment is needed to avert a meltdown. Once a need for Airborne assistance is confirmed, region administrative assistants request volunteers from their region and make travel arrangements for those volunteers chosen for a deployment.

Administrative Assistants Terrah Rash of the Western Region and Mary Ann Grasso of the Central Region were instrumental in making travel arrangements for the majority of this winter’s deployments. “This year was the most challenging because there were so many volunteers traveling to many different locations,” Grasso says. “When faced with a challenge like this, you just have to move ahead, keep on top of any changes that need to be made and make sure that everyone traveling is safe.”

The Airborne program is known for flying volunteers from across the country but, ideally, volunteers are located in areas where they can drive in. This year, fewer trucks have been available because every region, apart from the West, has needed all its bobtails to meet widespread heightened demand for propane.

AmeriGas #7561, Beaufort, SC, and Blue Flame Gas #7133, Johns Island, S.C., had enough trucks. The problem was that they were each short-handed one driver. Both locations were falling behind on deliveries, and District Manager Dick Ricklefs requested Airborne assistance to get deliveries current.

Service Tech Alan Davis of G&K Propane #1121, Yucca Valley, Calif., and Delivery Rep. Dave Cortez of AmeriGas #1061, Oxnard, Calif., flew in to assist for two weeks. As luck would have it, in the week they arrived, the state was hit by its worst ice storm in 20 years, which shut down both locations for at least a half-day. But both drivers made rapid progress after the storm.

“They worked really hard for us,” Ricklefs says. “It really helped me out in Johns Island, and got us over the hump in Beaufort.” Davis, who volunteered in Beaufort, was even able to train a new employee Ricklefs had hired.

Refining the Program

Attracting Airborne volunteers has always been a challenge, notes Rumbelow. In the past, there hadn’t been any incentives to reward drivers or to compensate district managers who sent their team members across the country to assist.

This year, the program was enhanced to include a bonus for volunteers who leave their home locations for two weeks or longer and a budget adjustment for the districts sending volunteers.

Most volunteers left their home districts on a two-week deployment, but some offered to stay extra days in locations that were still in dire need.

“It has made a significant contribution,” Rumbelow says. “When we went out to look for employees, we were able to add a significantly large number of Airborne people. It has done a lot to increase the number of people stepping forward.”