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November 01, 2006  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How Dispatchers Fill a Pivotal Role

The dispatch position can be one of the most demanding in pupil transportation, but it is at the hub of an operation’s success. Here’s a look at the skills dispatchers need to handle the job and its inherent stress.

by Peter Lawrence and Paul Overbaugh

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It’s a typical morning at the dispatch desk. A driver is calling on the radio, another employee is calling on the phone to say they are not working this afternoon, a mechanic is listing the buses being serviced that afternoon, the high school athletic director is calling in looking for the soccer team’s bus and an angry parent walks in to register a complaint.

On the front line in the transportation department, dispatchers face these constant demands as they fulfill the great challenge of providing safe transportation for children. To be effective, they must first be a great communicator. They must also be able to manage time wisely, multi-task and juggle the many pulls on their attention without becoming sidetracked.

Like a circus performer who must stay focused on the saucers he is spinning on sticks, a dispatcher must remain focused every moment of the day to maintain effective communication. Unlike the circus performer, however, a dispatcher can suffer much more than a few broken dishes if his concentration falters.

During the normal course of business, stress is a given for dispatchers. Especially during the three busiest times of the day — morning roll-out, mid-day dismissals and afternoon roll-out — dispatchers must remain calm, cool and collected as they execute their many duties.

Every day, they must listen to radio conversations, anticipate what actions need to be taken and prioritize responses on the spot. They have to know which buses are out of service for maintenance or repair and assign spare buses, which drivers are out sick and which subs will fill routes, what field and sports trips are scheduled and what to do if emergencies arise.

Communication is key
Being a great dispatcher does not happen by simply sitting down in the dispatch chair. The person filling the job must be an excellent communicator — someone whose skills can help build positive relationships in the school district and the community, someone who demonstrates respect and knows when to listen and when to talk.

Today’s dispatcher must be proficient in many methods of communication. It is essential that he be able to communicate professionally by phone, by two-way radio and, of course, face to face.

A dispatcher must also be able to articulate thoughts clearly by e-mail, since the medium is widely used by parents and administrators. A watchful eye to word choice is paramount because it is difficult to convey a positive tone of voice through the often curt, quick notes that are dashed off online. In addition, etiquette skills while using instant messaging can make or break a dispatcher. Communications can seem unprofessional; the abbreviated language and acronyms used in instant messaging can sometimes be misunderstood.

Whenever and however they communicate, their voice must always be clear and credible. When answering the dispatch telephone, a smile needs to come through to the person on the other end. A professional, personal and polite greeting can have a positive impact on callers and relax an uptight parent who calls in worried about a late bus. Listening actively and not letting thoughts wander is also important. Inattention and passivity can come through on the phone and exasperate an already concerned parent.

A caring dispatcher remembers to empathize and apologize when appropriate. The old saying, “You have two ears and one mouth — use them appropriately,” is good to remember during any interaction. Many times parents just want to vent and feel that they are being heard.

Especially during an emergency or disaster, dispatchers must be able to remain calm, focused and unemotional. The radio must be treated with respect. It should also be policed for unnecessary or personal conversations (such as, “Meet me at the diner after your run”) to avoid frustration when important communications need to be relayed.

Actions such as sarcasm, snapping back at rude or irritating drivers, or repeatedly calling a substitute driver to inquire what time he will arrive at a stop should be avoided at all cost. Such approaches can be toxic to an operation and can also cause undue pressure on a driver, distracting him and jeopardizing student safety. If a substitute driver is running late, it would be better to ask how many minutes he is running behind and let appropriate staff members know so that messages can be relayed to parents who call in.

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