They're called the hub of the school bus operation and the one person who knows everything: who's driving what bus, which kids are absent on any given day and which bus is on which route.
However crucial dispatchers are to the day-to-day operations of a school bus facility, their role has not received the same level of attention in terms of training and professional development as other positions in school transportation have.
"The dispatchers were like the lost entity of school transportation," says Kathy Furneaux, executive director of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute (PTSI). "It was very difficult to identify professional development that applied to the day-to-day tasks that they face. So we began to brainstorm what types of skills are needed to handle the job well and how to enhance those skills in professional development."
The result was PTSI's eight-hour, one-day course for dispatchers covering communication skills, the dispatcher's contribution to employee morale, documenting complaints, logging fleet activities, handling emergency situations, protecting themselves and their employers from liability, prepping substitute and field trip drivers and managing time and stress.
Furneaux believes it should be a requirement to have worked as a bus driver before becoming a dispatcher. "If you have a driver who is telling you about an incident that is occurring on the bus, you need to be able to grasp what could potentially be going on there and what might happen next, and how that's going to impact a bus that's three miles away on a whole different route," she explains. "I think that's a perspective that you only obtain from being part of that system. It makes you much more efficient to be able to anticipate the needs of the driver.”
Furneaux says the way districts and bus companies determine the number of dispatchers needed varies, but it’s generally based on the population of the service area. “If you’re in a densely populated area, you could have a very small district but need three dispatchers just to handle phone calls alone,” she says. “Or you could be in a very large district that’s sparsely populated and one dispatcher can handle it.”
The dispatcher’s job starts first thing in the morning, Furneaux says, with a crucial task. “In order to be compliant with the federal DOT [Department of Transportation] drug and alcohol regulations, someone has to eyeball that driver and make sure that they’re fit for duty,” she says. “The dispatcher, in most places, is that person who’s making that initial fit-for-duty assessment.”
That initial greeting also exemplifies the dispatcher’s role in boosting employee morale. A friendly, welcoming interaction helps reinforce the bond of trust between dispatchers and drivers. A less-pleasant greeting, especially if it’s a constant thing, can have deleterious effects, Furneaux says. “Over time, the bus driver doesn’t want to come to work because everybody’s so crabby in there,” she says. “It impedes the flow of critical information, makes the driver feel like they’re being judged or, ‘They really don’t care about me or they really don’t want to know,’ and so it begins to eat away at morale.”
The first topic addressed in PTSI’s training course is basic communication skills — more specifically, how to answer the phone and use the two-way radio system, with a focus on maintaining confidentiality about student information and a respectful and professional tone.
Furneaux says PTSI’s training course uses role-playing exercises for practice and asks dispatchers to think about their experiences when they’ve been on the other end of a phone call and the kind of customer service they appreciate.
“In order to transport a child safely, information has to flow in every direction, back and forth,” Furneaux says. “The dispatcher has to be competent enough to be able to communicate with high-level administrators and also communicate with parents and with students, and know when to filter that information.”
Then, dispatchers must keep track of all communications in order to follow up, document incidents and organize records. Having this broad view of the school bus operation requires the ability to retain a great deal of information, Furneaux says. “It’s the dispatcher that understands all of the impacts and how everything is interrelated,” she says. “The dispatcher can very quickly communicate to the people who need to know to cause the least havoc on the system.”
Furneaux’s tips for stress management for dispatchers include sharpening problem-solving skills, which enable them to handle complicated situations more efficiently. “We use scenarios to help them practice their problem-solving skills and to get them to think outside of the box,” she says. “A big help is to be able to clear your mind to get rid of the distractions and a good night’s sleep. You have to absolutely start out with a good night’s sleep, because fatigue will undermine all of your stress management.”
The director’s perspective
Peter Lawrence, director of transportation for Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District, encourages his dispatchers to attend the state association’s winter workshop to take part in specialized dispatcher training sessions. He also endorses PTSI’s training course as a resource for training dispatchers.
Any training program for dispatchers should include a focus on dealing with stress and not losing one’s cool, he says. Dispatchers also need to have a thorough knowledge of how to look up information on a computerized routing system, as well as field trip procedures, including assigning trips and covering runs. “It is usually the finer details of trip assignments that have the potential to cause a driver to want to grieve a decision made regarding an assignment,” he says. “The labor agreement is an area that should be discussed, and the dispatchers should have intimate knowledge of the contract and its provisions.”
One pitfall to avoid, Lawrence says, is letting a dispatcher’s friendships with drivers get in the way of his or her duties, especially if the dispatcher is a former driver. “A potential stumbling block is not separating themselves from their former circle of friends,” he explains. “It is important for any vidual in a management role to act and be perceived as fair and impartial.”
Lawrence says dispatchers must also not allow drivers and other staff to hang out in the dispatch office. “This takes away productivity, and the dispatcher can lose track of an important call if he or she is distracted by another person,” he says.
Being level-headed and a good listener are essential skills for dispatchers, Lawrence says. Even if they are under a lot of pressure, as dispatchers usually are, they need to pay close attention to communications from drivers. “Effective dispatchers can tell a lot about a driver’s state of mind in the tone of their voice,” he says. “You can tell when a serious situation like an accident has occurred or they have been shaken by some event on the road.
“Another important skill is the ability to bite one’s own tongue,” Lawrence says, “to refrain from making comments that may be deserved when a really stupid or inappropriate question is asked over the air.” Dispatchers are responsible for setting the tone as transportation professionals, monitoring drivers’ use of the radio and correcting them for using the radio improperly, he explains.
The Fairport transportation department tries to avoid using codes in radio conversations, preferring straightforward communication. “Most law enforcement and emergency responders recommend avoiding codes, as most people forget them if not used on a daily basis,” Lawrence says. “We only have three codes: Code 7, which means suspicion of a weapon, Code 9, actual knowledge of a weapon, and Code Blue, which means a medical emergency and all radio transmissions should cease until the emergency is addressed.”
Team shares experience
Transportation Director Pam McDonald, Transportation Supervisor Ellen Johnson and dispatchers Sharon Breland, Liz Garrison, Mike McCool and Sharon Rhyne calculated that they have worked at Orange (Calif.) Unified School District (USD) for 149 years, collectively. As the upper management team for the transportation department, they work together daily. “We’re like brothers and sisters,” Johnson says.
The four dispatchers at the district have all previously worked as drivers, either at Orange USD or elsewhere. Is it necessary to have a background as a driver? “I think we’re all pretty adamant about that,” says Garrison, who specializes in field trip dispatching.
“I’ve worked at the charter companies, and some of the people that are working in the office have never driven,” McCool says. “They think you can get anywhere in no time.”
“It’s also about pupil management,” Rhyne says. “If they’ve never been in a bus before, how can you tell someone how to deal with pupil management?”
In terms of training, McDonald says dispatchers at Orange generally learn each other to help relieve the stress of the job and blow off steam. “We all get in our little moods and we all have to be heard from somebody,” Johnson says. “And we cry.”
Johnson and McDonald also keep two-way radios at their desks to monitor fleet activity and listen for any problems. “Pam and I will hear their stress because we know them so well we can pick up their tone of voice, and we’ll go, ‘OK, time to break a dispatcher and have someone else sit there for a while,’” Johnson says.
“When the phone’s ringing, the two-way radio’s going, parents are complaining and the driver’s wanting your attention at the window, you have to multitask all those at one time and you have to decide which one’s more important,” McDonald says.
Dispatcher Dos and Don’ts
These tips are offered by Mary Jane Bocanegra, a dispatcher for First Student in Savannah, Ga. “By following these rules and other company guidelines, you can know that your job was done to the best of your abilities,” she says.
• Always greet drivers.
• Know your drivers.
• Have a good relationship with supervisors.
• Be able to multitask. This includes answering the radio, phones, etc.
• Be helpful with providing directions for drivers.
• Be sure to always document accidents and incidents.
• Have the ability to remain calm under pressure. Many people rely on you to assist them or provide them information.
• Be knowledgeable of routes to assist drivers.
• Never show frustration while dispatching on the radio. Be respectful of all drivers who are in need of assistance.
• Never use your radio for personal use. (This goes for both drivers and dispatchers.)