Equipment managers have long been accustomed to changing their well-laid plans without notice. For them, it’s nothing new. Whether it’s inventory, sanitization, travel, or any of a host of tasks assigned them, equipment managers understand adaptation.
“We don’t live in the world of rainbows and butterflies and sunshine,” Chuck Hall, director of equipment operations at the University of Louisville, says. “We live in the world of, ‘Is it going to snow today? Is there going to be a twister tomorrow? Is there going to be a hurricane a week from now?’ We live in the land of what-ifs.
“Time is critical because you’re trying to plan six, nine, 12 months out into the year of what could happen. Plan for the best, but know that the worst could happen.”
When the worst did in fact happen one year ago, equipment managers attacked the process of keeping their football program on the rails proactively, with a mindset born of constantly asking questions no one else wants to consider.
What’s training camp going to look like if we have to hold it in January?
How are we going to share an indoor facility with all the other sports that are kicking up at the same time as the football training camp?
If we have to play during the coldest months of the year, are we going to need to rent heaters? What do they cost? What about heated benches?
Will any of our suppliers be shut down for a meaningful period of time? Do we need to get on the waiting list anywhere to make sure that we have reserves?
The list goes on and on.
For Dana Marquez, associate athletic director in charge of equipment operations at Auburn University, handling these constant “what-ifs” boils down to the three pillars he’s built their department on: service, education and innovation.
“Not having people around because of COVID required time management, making sure people can get in and out of here in a very time efficient manner, and making sure inventory was up to speed quickly without any waste of movement,” Marquez explains, summarizing how those pillars were mobilized, enabling his staff to handle even a situation as unusual as a 100-year pandemic.
“It was no more evident than this year that those three pillars meant everything to us, and it worked exactly how we planned it,” he adds.
From the equipment manager’s perspective, it would be easy to look at the challenges of a highly-infectious virus and assume that health and sanitation were the only real concerns. In reality, the pandemic has shown everyone in athletics how valuable the proactive mindset of the equipment manager is, and that it’s well past time to start looking at the bigger picture.
“If you look at the industry that we’re in, athletics in general is a very reactive community,” Marquez explains. “It was ironic because I got asked early on, ‘Dana, do you guys have an ozone chamber?’ I go, ‘I have two of them, and I bought them in 2006.’
“But that’s what the equipment guy does. Prepare for the unexpected, right? The people that are prepared can do it. The people that aren’t scramble and get frustrated.”
Investing In Inventory
First and foremost, equipment managers need to be in supreme command of their inventory. An accurate knowledge of how old inventory is, understanding what equipment they are storing they no longer need, and being aware of any existing surplus are all a huge part of being able to stay ahead of potential supply problems.
“We’re so used to our vendors being on time with items and not having any supply chain issues,” Ben Herman, assistant athletic director for equipment operations at Eastern Michigan University, says. “Just to go through this experience, we now have to make plan B, C and D to try to make sure that the team doesn’t miss a hitch or doesn’t really feel the effects.”
Herman says the pandemic was a good reminder for his staff about the value of reaching out to vendors early and often, making sure everything looks good on their end. On the program’s end, Herman and his staff use FR TRAC, an inventory management solution provided by Front Rush.
“How do you place a booking order unless you know exactly what you have?” Herman asks. “What really having the storage and having an inventory system does for you, is basically, on your computer you can see exactly what you have on the shelf.”
Herman isn’t alone in using modern technology to track his inventory. Hall uses Equipment Ops software by Helmet Tracker at Louisville.
“I can sit here from the director’s chair and I can see every bit of inventory value of what we have on hand, no matter what sport or department it is in,” Hall explains about the Helmet Tracker system. “During a pandemic, not being able to get all the supplies you need, you can share that information with one another a lot easier, when you know what everybody has.”
Not only does the football program benefit from the system, but the accurate reports and accounting for every piece of gear pays dividends for every program at the school, allowing certain commonly used items to be shared where appropriate, and giving the director a constant overview of where the entire program’s supply levels are at.
Creating Safe Spaces
Understanding inventory is a critical first step, but how do you store everything?
When it comes to being prepared for anything, the answer to this question becomes absolutely critical. Not only does the proactive equipment manager strive to be efficient and organized with their storage, they place a premium on having flexibility with how space and personnel are utilized.
At Louisville, the equipment staff benefits from a large warehouse, but even with that benefit, they still rely on Spacesaver to help them maximize their efficiency and flexibility.
“We use Spacesaver here in everything we do, in all our buildings, our warehouses, on our shelving,” Hall says. “Fortunately, using them, we are able to maximize the area that we have.”
With all the extra cleaning procedures every day, and the regulations on the number of people who are allowed in a given space at one time, being able to manage equipment with as few personnel as possible is huge.
For example, Auburn went from one shared locker room to having three, separate rooms with multiple smaller groups of athletes coming in and out much quicker than ever before, while at the same time also trying to maintain six feet of distance at all times. With challenges like that, it’s important to maintain a constant grasp on how much space you have, and how you can compress or expand as needed.
Sanitation In 2021
Lastly, if it isn’t clear already, sanitation concerns are here to stay. The challenges of COVID-19 show the harsh reality of how many programs are wholly unprepared to handle an outbreak of infectious disease.
When sickness does strike, whether it be a deadly novel virus or the common cold, the level of preparedness of the equipment staff will quickly be revealed.
“We had Lysol when no one else had Lysol. We still have Lysol and no one can find Lysol,” Marquez says with a chuckle. “We did all of our ordering of all of our sanitation equipment in March before it really broke. By the tail end of the year, we were almost back to normal. The sanitation was still consistent. We were in a flow, we already knew what we were doing.”
Marquez adds stockpiling items like disinfectant spray, masks, gloves or static electric sprayers wasn’t out of the ordinary for Auburn. He has watched as other programs struggled to find solutions during the pandemic, especially at the high school level.
“High schools are 100 percent not even close to being where they need to be now,” he says, adding that coaches and equipment managers should invest in their own sanitizing and cleaning equipment, and set themselves up for both a cheaper short-term solution and long-term preparedness.
Hall’s staff at Louisville takes a similar, self-sufficient approach, and he also echoes Marquez’ praise of ozone machines, which provide a quick, reliable way to sanitize large quantities of equipment with minimal labor.
“We have the sprayers, but I tell you, the biggest one, if you can afford it and you can do it, find an ozone machine,” Hall says. “It just helps with every kind of disease that’s out there. It helps keep your locker room clean and disinfected, and that’s the number one thing.”
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“There are a lot of great ones,” says Herman. “But for us, with the ZONO, we really liked where you open the cabinet doors, roll stuff in on carts that are pre-staged and then you roll them out. For us, not having to load each individual helmet in and then load it out — it doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal — but it’s just a huge time saver.
“We can get everyone’s helmets sanitized and dried in two cycles. While the first one’s going, we can go around the locker room, grab the rest, fill up those carts, and then we’re just doing the swap. It seems simple, but it sets your mind at ease. We use it daily.”
This article was written by Adam Reed, Editor, AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider.
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