Some Like It Hot

For California’s AAA Mobile Showers, living in a state of high alert 24/7 comes with the territory when providing forest-fire base camp services

Some Like It Hot
An AAA employee works in the mobile laundry station.

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“The great thing is that the emergency workers are always glad to see us coming … they make us feel like we’re an important part of the camp and the team. It’s not very glamorous work, but it’s very gratifying.”

No one wishes for forest fires or other natural disasters. But when they occur in the Western United States, AAA Mobile Showers must stand ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice to provide hundreds ­– sometimes thousands – of emergency workers with mission-critical shower and laundry trailers and other base camp necessities, such as water trucks, generators and tents.

“For forest fires, we’re expected to be on the road within two hours,” says Laura Abel, who owns and operates the company in Diamond Springs, Calif., with her husband, Steve. “You have to be ready. We could be working with 200 emergency workers or 2,000 – we never know what we’ll be dealing with.

“Needless to say, our employ-ees must always be within cell-phone range, and they can’t tear apart a piece of equipment and wait until the next day to put it back together,” she adds. “In our business, you keep your bills paid and your laundry done so you can commit to leaving on very short notice … it definitely appeals to only a certain kind of employee.”

Abel says it wasn’t easy to deal with the stress at first, but thank-ful emergency workers make each job rewarding.

“In the beginning, it was stressful,” she says. “But you get used to it. As long as you’re prepared, it’s not that stressful. You have to anticipate every possible scenario and make sure equipment is always ready to go. When you get there, you’re busy, but that’s a different kind of stress.

“The great thing is that the emergency workers are always glad to see us coming … they make us feel like we’re an important part of the camp and the team,” she adds. “It’s not very glamorous work, but it’s very gratifying.”

 

UNPREDICTABLE SCHEDULE

The job pressure is exacerbated because there’s no way to predict how long a job will last; it could involve just a few days away from home, a couple weeks or several months. On the other hand, sometimes there’s no fire season to speak of.

The company’s website lists all the forest fires it’s been involved with since 1999, and a quick look reflects the vagaries of trying to predict a fire season. In 2010, the company helped out at four fires. In 2007, it was 19. Busy or not, the company is bound by contract to be available any time during the fire season, which generally runs from May through October.

The so-called Zaca Fire underscores the uncertainty with which AAA Mobile employees live. It began on July 4, 2007, in Santa Barbara County, in Southern California’s Los Padres National Forest. By the time it was contained, it was almost Labor Day, and the fire – the second largest in state history at the time – had covered more than 240,000 acres.

“Our camp served several thousand people for several weeks,” Abel says. “We had a lot of equipment there and for two or three weeks, plus 30 employees, several water trucks, two large shower units and two large laundry units. We brought along graywater trucks, too, because we had to haul dirty water to treatment plants.”

 

STARTED SMALL

The company’s origins stem from a water truck purchased by Steve’s father, Cal Abel, who used it on a farm he owned.

“They saw a niche to use it for forest fires and developed a business,” Abel says. “Then Steve broke off and went on his own … they both wanted to run their own business.’’

The company started out with one 3,500-gallon Peterbilt water truck, used as a water tender. In the mid- to late 1980s, demand for shower trailers emerged, so the company moved in that direction. In the early 1990s, fire camps started using mobile laundry services, so the Abels built their own laundry trailers to earn federal-government contracts to provide that service.

Today, the company’s fleet of equipment includes three 1995 Volvo semi tractors; seven 28- to 36-foot-long home-fabricated mobile shower trailers built on units manufactured by Tuff Boy Leasing & Equipment Sales, Haulmark Industries and Fruehauf; five home-fabricated laundry trailers, built using 18- to 48-foot-long cargo trailers made from Haulmark, Pace American and Carson Trailer; several electric generators made by Caterpillar and SDMO; six tractor-trailer water tankers with 4,000-gallon stainless-steel tanks, some built by Beall Corp.; and two 1995 Volvos with 3,600-gallon tanks, built out by T & B Sales. The tanker trucks and trailers use S Series centrifugal, self-priming pumps made by Pacer Pumps, a division of ASM Industries.

The company is trying to reduce costs and boost productivity by replacing older washing machines with new, high-efficiency units. Speed and efficiency are critical, especially when AAA Mobile works with paid firefighters (as opposed to volunteers). In those instances, each firefighter’s laundry must be weighed (with some agencies, AAA gets paid by the pound), washed, dried, folded and put in a bag, ready to use, within 24 hours.

“In some busy camps, we run 24 hours a day, using trailers set up with 10 washers and 10 dryers each,” Abel says. “We might do thousands of loads of laundry for a couple weeks straight. If we don’t meet the 24-hour deadline, they have the option to order in another contractor. And if we lose someone’s Nomex (fireproof) suit, that’s not a good thing, because they’re expensive and firefighters can’t go out in a fire without it.’’

 

CHANGING BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT

About 80 percent of the company’s business comes from contracts with the U.S. Forest Service, plus some state firefighting agencies. Many firefighting contracts run for five years, but Abel notes that a larger field of competitors has made them tougher to obtain in recent years.

“There used to be a small, set number of federal shower contracts,” she explains. “Now they have 44 (companies that) do what we do, so the (contracting) pie has been cut into smaller pieces.

“When a fire occurs, the contractor closest to the fire gets the call,” she says. “We’re no longer (always) the closest contractor. You have to plan carefully for which areas you bid – look at the competitors and the (region’s) fire history.”

Contract awards are based on several factors, not just price. They also consider each company’s equipment specs and past per-formance. It takes six to nine months to complete the bidding process, she says.

“Our professional association, the National Mobile Shower and Catering Association, is trying to get the number of contracts reduced back down to the number in the prior contract period, so companies like ours can remain viable.”

It’s not an easy industry to compete in, either. Companies only earn money if fires occur; there are no stand-by fees or retainers.

“So in a quiet year, we get nothing,” she points out. “We could spend thousands of dollars on equipment and then not have any income to pay for it. In general, most businesses in this industry find it difficult to get conventional business loans because they can’t say for sure what their income will be over the next several years. It’s totally dependent on the fire season.”

“We look for maturity and experience. We’ve hired a contractor, a machinist, a school principal and a prison warden. And several of our couples used to be ‘wagon masters’ for companies that lead RV tours, so they’re used to planning and thinking logistically.’’

Laura Abel

 

WORKFORCE CHALLENGES

The seasonality of the work sometimes makes finding qualified employees difficult. For managers, AAA typically hires retired couples who are full-time RV’ers used to being on the road for long stretches of time.

“They’re away from home a lot, so if a husband and wife are together, they’re happier,” Abel says. “We look for maturity and experience. We’ve hired a contractor, a machinist, a school principal and a prison warden. And several of our couples used to be ‘wagon masters’ for companies that lead RV tours, so they’re used to planning and thinking logistically.

The company also relies on a pool of qualified truck drivers. With an estimated 50 to 65 percent driver turnover rate, Abel must search every spring for a number of new truck drivers.

“We pay them well when they do work,” she notes. “But it’s a gamble for them. They need to weigh the risk of committing to us versus other jobs. Not all of them commit to full availability all season. We need a larger pool of people just in case guys or gals who commit to partial availability are already out on jobs.”

The company also hires less-specialized laborers to perform tasks such as cleaning shower stalls and handling laundry. They tend to be college students who are more adventurous and enjoy camp life. They have to recruit new technicians every year.

 

WEATHER IS CRITICAL

As one might expect, the Abels pay close attention to the weather, which can significantly impact the company’s operations. For instance, when below-average snowfalls and rainfalls create dry, tinder-like conditions, AAA employees perform general equipment maintenance earlier than usual, since the fire season might start sooner than normal.

“There was not much rain or snow this past winter, so we anticipate a busy 2012,” Abel says. “Everything’s in good working condition early because you can’t afford to take time when things get busy.” In some respects, Abel admits, it’s difficult mentally to run a business that depends so heavily on tragic disasters.

“It is hard to get your head around it,” she says. “The way we figure it, if there’s going to be a fire, we want to be the ones working. We’re the responders, and we know how to take care of things when those emergency crews need our help.”



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