23 Sep 21

How connectivity keeps fleets safe and secure – even in Afghanistan

If you want examples of fleet connectivity improving vehicle security and driver safety, few organisations are better placed than the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. UNHCR operates in some of the world’s most dangerous areas. Key takeaway? “Make sure your devices are transmitting”, says Ondrej Holcman, the agency’s fleet officer. 

Mr. Holcman (pictured inset) has over a decade of experience with vehicle fleets, much of that time with global organisations in risky terrain, like Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organisation and, since early 2020, UNHCR. 

Ebola outbreak

From that agency’s Global Service Centre in Budapest, he oversees its vast and scattered fleet – over 7,000 vehicles across 120 countries – with a tiny staff of 3.5 full-time equivalents. 

No mere desk jockey, Mr. Holcman has seen plenty of action himself: “Throughout my international career, I’ve been on about 30 missions – often to regions plagued by war or natural disasters. I remember particularly the harrowing mission assignment with WHO in DR Congo, which was then facing an Ebola outbreak during the period of a presidential election. In those circumstances, security and safety are major concerns, obviously.”

UNHCR as well as many non-governmental and humanitarian organisations operates in areas where much of the infrastructure we take for granted in mature economies – safe roads and traffic rules, repair shops and petrol stations – are absent (pictured: UNHCR convoy in Mosul, Iraq). Yet despite these circumstances, or perhaps precisely because of them, the UNHCR fleet has a remarkably high degree of connectivity. 

Middle of nowhere

“Since 2012, every new vehicle we bring into our fleet must have a tracking system installed. We still do use a certain number of vehicles acquired before that year, but overall, we can track around 85% of our fleet,” says Mr. Holcman. 

“Our vehicles often operate in the middle of nowhere, with hostiles looking to kidnap our staff or steal our vehicles, or both. Important to know in this regard is that a significant number of our vehicles are armoured, which is valuable to other actors in the field. In Afghanistan, for example, we currently manage several dozens of armoured vehicles. Our vehicle tracking system (VTS) is one of the means to counteract those risks.”

Concretely, vehicles ideally come with a panic button, which drivers can press in case of accident or danger. And the VTS notifies identified security personnel who may initiate a relevant action. If requested, Mr. Holcman and his team can remotely immobilise vehicles. “Fortunately, this year we’ve only had to immobilise vehicles eight times; so it’s a fairly rare event. We recently had some vehicle thefts in Ethiopia and Chad. We immobilised the vehicles, and thanks to the VTS, our retrieval team was able to track them to the place where they had been stored. So we got them back.”

Satellite connectivity

The VTS also allows for geofencing: “We can simply draw a zone on the map where we define various attributes, such as speed limits, alerts when entering or leaving, curfew, etcetera. We often use geofencing to define no-go zones, security checkpoints and to monitor cross border movements.”

One major drawback is that UNHCR’s fleet, unlike conventional connected fleets, can’t rely solely on GPRS signals, but must instead use satellite connectivity, which is much costlier, and therefore doesn’t allow for high-volume data transmission. 

So, tracking vehicles across war and disaster zones is still far from perfect. Nevertheless, UNHCR’s system is remarkably performant. 

Unwelcome events

“The tracking devices have a crash log, that recognises impacts. Moreover, the system notifies us of unwelcome events, such as hard cornering, hard braking or high speeds – unless specified, we apply a general speed limit of 90 kph,” says Mr. Holcman.

All very useful info – but only if it can be linked to specific drivers. And that’s exactly the idea behind a pilot project to have drivers log in with identification in order to start their cars. “Such a system has a twofold payback: it helps us identify drivers and build driver profiles, and that in turn increases road safety,” says Mr. Holcman. 

Tying drivers to their driving behaviour is a prerequisite for identifying drivers in need of training. The UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) is an accredited UN System Staff College member, and provides this type of training for the UN. The goal of which is to have a UN in-house sustainable driver training relying on its own trainers. 

Utilisation rate

UNHCR’s tracking systems are monitored both at the local level, for example to deal with the need for immediate repairs; and at HQ level, where Holcman and his team monitor mileage, and other big-data parameters. 

Connectivity does not just bring benefits in terms of safety and security, but has also the potential to raise the fleet’s utilisation rate. “We run a pilot project for carpooling among UN organisations in the field,” says Mr. Holcman. “Some of our vehicles, as well as some vehicles of other agencies, don’t drive more than 1,500 miles per month, therefore it makes sense to share them. The biggest cost we have is to pay drivers who aren’t driving, therefore this approach allows us to use our human resources efficiently.”  

“We’re using VTS to monitor peak utilisation and overall mileage, and as a platform to book vehicles between agencies. We hope that will help us rationalise our fleet and share it with others. Our aim is a utilisation rate of 90%.”

Connected and transmitting

With his wealth of experience managing fleets in extreme circumstances, what advice does Mr. Holcman have for his colleagues in more mainstream lines of work, who want to optimise their fleet management via connectivity? 

“One of the parameters we monitor at HQ is the rate of non-transmitting assets. Because you can’t make key decisions without data being available, due to some of your vehicles not being connected. And that happens due to various reasons: not only because of a hardware failure, but also for operational reasons, for example, vehicles not used for an extended period of time resulting in a flat battery; or when they go to the repair shop, and the device is unplugged. So first things first: make sure your devices are connected and transmitting!”

If you would like to know more about the benefits of connected technology, join the fourth edition of the Connected Fleets Conference. Scheduled on 30 September and entitled 'Telematics, the proof of success!', the conference will feature Best Practices Case Studies by fleet managers and Expert Presentations by fleet suppliers. As a participant, you will also have the opportunity to network and build new business relations. Register for free!

Images: UNHCR

Authored by: Frank Jacobs