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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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Evaluate policies
To improve communication, sometimes it is helpful to review and change policies. For example, in 2006, the Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District looked at its long-standing practice of having the dispatcher call drivers on the radio each day to let them know the names and addresses of students who were not riding the bus.

This seemingly small action caused operational problems in terms of the time-consuming task of keeping up with parent phone calls and relaying messages while performing other morning functions. Many times, a driver, knowing that a student did not need to be picked up, would alter the route, avoid a street or leave later. Sometimes, a bus that should have been on time would then run into more traffic and wind up being late for other stops, prompting complaint calls from parents.

The school district evaluated the practice and determined that there was no need to call in this information. Drivers were required to run their routes as written. If the student was out at the bus stop, the driver was to stop; if not, the driver was to drive past the stop. The school district reported that the time crunch problems were alleviated. Many drivers also commented on how much radio communications were improved.

Radio communication can be enhanced by teaching drivers some simple techniques, such as holding the microphone close, turning up the volume and projecting in order to be heard over engine noise and student conversations. To make sure the beginning of a message is heard, drivers can pause for a few seconds before speaking rather than keying the microphone and starting to speak immediately.

Stress comes with the job
Besides their dynamic, fast-paced work environment, today’s dispatchers face issues and pressures that did not exist a few decades ago.

Their responsibilities have increased because of mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act and, in some places, restrictions to keep sexual predators from living near bus stops. A dispatcher must take time to become acquainted with such laws and the accompanying company or district policies. They should also be familiar with other policies regarding communication and confidentiality, as well as accidents, incidents, abductions or anything that would involve them directly or indirectly.

Many dispatchers have learned lessons the hard way in these matters after misspeaking to the press or further antagonizing an angry parent in a pressured situation, when there is not time to think.

Keeping a logbook can help dispatchers manage the mountain of communications they must handle every day. Nothing more complicated than a spiral notebook is needed to record every communication from every mode. It is imperative to date each day and to record the time of every communication.

The log can be used to track driver tardiness, clear up misunderstandings or identify re-routing needs. It can also help document an emergency situation or serve as evidence for the timing of an accident or traffic infraction involving a school bus. In the midst of a dispatcher’s busy morning routine, the extra work may seem burdensome; but once the practice becomes a habit, it can be an invaluable tool.

To alleviate stress in a job where concentration is essential, a dispatcher must have proper rest and nutrition to stay focused and centered. A dispatcher must also be able to step away from the stress: going for a walk or sitting quietly in a park during lunch or on a break may be the best way to make it through a busy afternoon.

Dispatchers have one of the hardest jobs in the pupil transportation industry; their work is the hub of an operation’s success. As the “voice” of a contract or district operation, they set the “feel” of the department through interactions with drivers, attendants, mechanics, parents, childcare providers, athletic directors, administrators and students.

It takes a special person to excel as a dispatcher. The person who sits in that chair must be a true professional, possessing the skills, attitudes and qualities that are necessary to “keep the saucers spinning” as they execute their duties and meet the many demands of the job.

The role of the dispatcher may be stressful, but it can also be satisfying, with the potential to touch — and save — lives every day. A dispatcher is the heartbeat of a school transportation department — pivotal to an efficient and safe operation.

Peter Lawrence is director of transportation at Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District. Paul Overbaugh is curriculum development specialist at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y.

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