Duracell Power Forward fleet: building awesome trucks for awful occasions

(Photos/graphics courtesy of DURACELL)

They’re not first responders, but if there’s a natural disaster they plan to be on the scene early and to stay for as long it takes  – and they’ve put together the hard working truck fleet to get the job done.

The official version goes like this: The Duracell Power Forward program, known for donating batteries to those affected by natural disaster since 2011, is expanding its fleet and joining forces with The Weather Channel and Ready.gov to reach more people, more quickly during devastating storms.

With the addition of new vehicles and hubs in New Orleans, San Francisco, and St. Louis, the fleet’s goal is to reach any storm site in the continental U.S. within 24 hours.

“Being in the battery business, we know all too well when a natural disaster strikes, power fails and communities aren’t always prepared,” says Jeff Jarrett, marketing director for Duracell. “Duracell believes a little power goes a long way in reviving hope, so we have committed to expanding our fleet and relief efforts.”

But it’s one thing to develop a marketing strategy around doing the right thing, it’s another to execute.

So, to start, a full disclosure statement: Duracell Power Forward was in Tuscaloosa, Ala. – headquarters of Randall-Reilly and Hard Working Trucks – following the devastating tornado in 2011, the team’s first field assignment. And many in the community can attest to how important a handful of batteries or a phone recharge can be.

And that’s just the sort of coincidence that leads a journalist to make a few follow-up phone calls when a press release crosses his desk.

“Ultimately, the goal of this whole program is to hand out batteries to people. When the power goes off, Duracell’s there,” says Ross Mosher, Duracell Power Forward fleet director. “We want people to know that we can get in there and get to them, then get back out.”

And that takes trucks. Custom-equipped trucks.

The original rig (Slide 8) was a Chevrolet Kodiak 4500 pulling a 42-ft FeatherLite trailer. The modifications to the truck were minimal: a Duracell paint scheme and some powder coating, along with an extended-range fuel tank.

The initial concept was to set up a distribution center in a centrally located parking lot from which the team could hand out its payload of household batteries, get people online with the internet-connected computers and WiFi or let people watch satellite tv – whether the Weather Channel or a sporting event.

“Sometimes just having basketball playoffs can be something that takes people’s minds off what going on,” Mosher says.

As the does the rest of the fleet, the 4500 includes dual alternators wired to a bank of batteries, allowing the team to provide power without having to run the engine. Noteworthy: the mothership carries 10 Duracell AGM deep-cell batteries, good to go for a couple of days, despite the multiple computers onboard and the video screen.

And each truck in the fleet is powered by a diesel engine “because we’ve found in disaster areas that it’s easier to get diesel,” Mosher adds. “And more horsepower is better for carrying more batteries.”

Ross Mosher, third from right, with the Duracell Power Forward team at the ‘PrepareAthon! National Day of Action’ launch of the expanded truck fleet.Ross Mosher, third from right, with the Duracell Power Forward team at the ‘PrepareAthon! National Day of Action’ launch of the expanded truck fleet.

Mosher has been with the Power Forward fleet from the start, and with the Tuscaloosa and Joplin, Mo., activations coming right out of the garage, the team recognized immediately that “being there was the right thing to do – being able to distribute batteries, recharge and reconnect people.”

“But we wanted to be able to get out into those neighborhoods and reach those people a lot closer,” Mosher says. “Each truck that we’ve built, we added something. Each time that we’re out in the field, we come back with ideas to make the trucks better.”

The second truck, Rapid Responder, was a Chevy 2500 (Slides 6, 7). The truck is lifted to support larger wheels and tires, and it features an aluminum cap with a two-drawer vault and custom roof boxes for battery storage and distribution (nearly a ton’s worth, or a two-day supply, good until a shipment of an extra skid or two of battery packs arrives).

“It can get anywhere. It’s got 4WD, a winch, bigger bumper and brush guards,” Mosher says.

Those first two trucks would sometimes work in tandem or, for a smaller event, the Rapid Responder would go in on its own.

Of course, now the Power Forward team is getting the hang of it. They built the third truck knowing what they needed.

“The idea was to go to a bigger truck, a dually where we could haul even more batteries,” Mosher says.

For that project Duracell began adding partners. He credits various aftermarket equipment suppliers for helping out (brand names are included on the graphics).

“The Rugged Responder (Slides 3-5) sits up really high. It’s a cool-looking truck, that’s one thing that’s great about it – for truck guys, obviously,” he said. “By lifting it up this high, we could also add a snorkel for the air intake. This thing can now get into some pretty deep water – three or four feet if it needs to.”

But it still does what the team needs: The cap vault can holds a full 2,000 pounds of batteries, and a cargo glide on top supports additional storage bins.

The Rugged Responder, along with the other newest trucks, carries a “preparedness display,” an educational package developed in conjunction with Ready.gov that will take the message to various home centers and retailers where the Power Forward team will pass along a little DIY readiness advice.

The latest pair of trucks, the Heavy Haulers (Slides 1, 2), are 2015 Chevy 3500s.

“Basically, we’ve modified everything but the engines,” he said. “If we’re going out to the same places as first responders, we want similar equipment. We wanted to maximize every square inch of the truck.”

And that means the kind of gear on the fleet’s other trucks, only more so. The team removed the stock bed and fabricated a utility body in-house. They found a supplier who made roll-up doors for firetrucks and added those. The Heavy Haulers also have enough lighting to illuminate a football field, “or even more, if it needed to,” Mosher added with a laugh.

More seriously, he explains that the Power Forward fleet aims for self-sufficiency, bringing along its own food and water; if they’re not sleeping in the truck they drive to hotels outside the disaster area.

And while the team’s DOT-licensed drivers train in some difficult conditions to make sure they know how to properly handle the equipment, they will not be getting into any situations they can’t get out of.

“The worst thing for us would be to be there to help people, and then need help ourselves,” he says. “We put the snorkel on to go through deep water, but we don’t want to be an example of what not to do. We don’t want to take away anything these people need.”

The crew members also must each have the type of personality that can cope with tragedy.

“We pull up in front of somebody’s house and they’re in the yard picking up from a hurricane or a tornado, and that pack of batteries is important,” Mosher says. “But a lot of times it’s also a high-five or a hug or a handshake that makes a difference. Sometimes just standing there listening to a story makes their day, and those are the kind of people that we put in our trucks.”

For the record, the fleet has deployed to 14 disaster locations and helped more than 30,000 families by distributing over 350,000 batteries, charging over 7,000 devices, and providing computer access to more than 5,000 people.