Proper etiquette is critical to seamless operation between dispatchers and drivers. Photo courtesy Stuart Vogelman

Proper etiquette is critical to seamless operation between dispatchers and drivers. Photo courtesy Stuart Vogelman

Observing proper radio etiquette is essential to seamless operation between dispatchers and drivers. Therefore, it needs to be clear, succinct, and professional. When coworkers have an easy rapport with each other and are used to communicating informally, these practices can take some getting used to. However, establishing protocols, especially for emergencies, and conducting focused, ongoing training can help.

I have learned through discussions with radio technicians and my law enforcement and emergency management experience that radio communications may be monitored and recorded by a variety of public organizations and individuals, including parents of students. That adds to the importance of instilling professional communication practices.

It is worth noting that school bus radio communications don’t need to be as disciplined as an FBI hostage rescue. The goal is simply to bring it up a notch in many cases.

Below is a breakdown of practices to put into place for effective radio operation training and communications.

Recommended Training Practices

These principles should be at the core of all training and reinforced with dispatchers, drivers, and leaders. Dispatchers should take the lead, since they set the tone for how everyone functions in challenging situations.

Keep in mind that training must be customized in accordance with state laws, school district cultures, and scope of service. Some districts have more radio traffic and multiple contractors transporting students, making radio communication discipline that much more critical.

1. Get support from the school administration on training, communications, and radio equipment upgrades. It is also valuable to seek input from a few of your most respected drivers, so they have buy-in and champion improvements.

2. Provide the right equipment. Dispatchers should use radios with boom mics or headsets. Using telephone-style dispatch stations can limit the use of both hands when on the radio and causes unnecessary repetitive motion. I highly recommend radios with volume knobs instead of the up-and-down volume arrows. Drivers should not use handhelds; they are too distracting.

3. Develop a radio training program for drivers and dispatchers. This must cover initial training with management, training for new hires, ongoing reinforcement training, and discipline for ­employees that do not follow policy.
Initial training can be conducted with a simple, clear PowerPoint presentation. New dispatchers and drivers can be trained using a document with radio guidelines.

4. Have dispatchers reinforce training on an ongoing basis. Give drivers and new-hires a laminated card for their lanyard with the phonetics ("A as in Adam," etc.) on one side and some radio terms and tips on the other.

5. Create clear emergency protocols for radio. Drivers need to be trained to use their radios in emergency situations. These situations require more training and discipline and need to conform to specific state and district requirements.

6. Be prepared to discipline for repeated violations as appropriate to back up training.

7. Address driver errors after routes are done rather than over the radio.

Keep in mind that radio operation training must be customized in accordance with state laws, school district cultures, and scope of service. File photo courtesy Clark County (N.V.) School District

Keep in mind that radio operation training must be customized in accordance with state laws, school district cultures, and scope of service. File photo courtesy Clark County (N.V.) School District

Messaging Tips

Best radio communication practices for dispatchers and drivers include:

1. Using radio equipment properly. Hold the microphone an inch or two from the mouth and always click it for one second before speaking and hold for one second after speaking. Improper microphone use can increase the likelihood of the message being cut off, or garbled transmissions that are either too quiet or loud.

2. Managing volume to avoid frequent repeats or negative contact transmissions. Also keep in mind that when a transmission is not understood, yelling into the microphone does not make it clearer.

3. Speaking carefully and purposefully, especially in an emergency. Take a deep breath and use a calm, even, and consistent voice.

4. Responding — not reacting. Stop and think before speaking. Don’t let ­emotions, especially anger, bleed into communications.

5. Being brief and using appropriate terms. Unclear communications that are too long and include inconsistent terminology can lead to confusion, errors, and unnecessary repeats. (See sidebar below for recommended terms.)

6. Limiting transmissions to immediate operational issues. Discussing personal issues or other topics that should be addressed after a route, making remarks to entertain other drivers, and other unnecessary comments cause tune-out and crowded radio traffic, which can get in the way of important messages.

Additionally, manners are not required — no need for “Have a nice day,” “Thank you so much,” etc.

7. Awareness of other transmissions. Drivers sometimes “swarm” the radio: one driver asks the dispatcher to make a call or complete research, and then other drivers call in with comments or requests. They may have an urgent issue but may also be oblivious to what is happening on the radio, which results in a frustrating interruption. “Radio tune-out” (not paying attention) is the usual culprit.

Drivers also need to be aware of what transmissions are occurring, so they are not needlessly interrupting them. Drivers sending transmissions at the same time — referred to as “walking on each other” — makes both transmissions garbled.

8. Not talking on the radio in emergencies. Many districts use a specific phrase for a medical or collision emergency. Drivers are then supposed to stay off the radio except for urgent traffic. Ignoring that makes emergency management more difficult.

9. Making their own calls (drivers). Special-needs routes, for example, often have aides with cell phones. Calls to parents and schools should be made by the aide, not dispatch.

10. Only using an occasional “all call” reminder (dispatchers), such as “Please clear the radios except for priority traffic….” if radio messages become chaotic.

Radio Communication Terms

Be sure to develop consistent terms for radio. I recommend simple words and avoiding ten-codes (“10-4,” etc.).

We use these, as most are common in law enforcement and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and are simple and universally understood:

  • “Copy” means “I heard your transmission,” not “Yes,” or “I’ll do what you ask,” etc.
  • “Affirmative” means “Yes.”
  • “Negative” means “No.”
  • “Will do” means “I will comply with your request.” Use this on requests instead of “Affirmative.”
  • When the conversation is over, the initiator should say, for example, “Base clear.”
  • If someone doesn’t answer the radio, the proper response is “Route XX, no contact. Base clear.”
  • Buses that are repaired should be described as “back on the line” or “in service.” Broken buses are “out of service.”
  • Use simple, consistent identifiers for buses and dispatch. Use route or bus numbers. Dispatch or base or some other identifier should be designated for your dispatch office. The fewer syllables, the better.
  • Use phonetics on hard-to-transmit names. For example, the name “Madie” can easily sound like “Hadie,” “Nadie,” or “Adie” on the radio. If the dispatcher asks for clarification, they usually get a driver yelling it louder the second time. If the name is Madie, say “Madie — Mary Adam David — Johnson." Or, say “The name is Madie Johnson and Madie is Mary Adam David.”

Stuart Vogelman is a dispatcher for a school district in eastern Washington. He has also worked as an emergency management systems dispatcher, motorcoach and school bus driver, senior executive, international business consultant, pastor, and chaplain for a state police agency. He can be contacted at