Sharon Breland (right) and Sharon Rhyne are dispatchers for Orange (Calif.) Unified School District and specialize in special-needs routes. They say stamina, patience and flexibility are important skills.
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.”