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The Voice on the Radio

Beyond the wheels of the school bus and in the complex world of student transportation, one role often overlooked but critical to safety and comfort is the school bus dispatcher. These professionals work behind the scenes to ensure the safety and success of every route and require indispensable skills. Dispatcher responsibilities vary from district to district depending on size, technology and location. Some work in soundproof rooms, while others are out in the open to greet people who enter the building.

Backgrounds differ. Some were receptionists, trainers, routers, administrators, or school bus drivers. They have all been hired to dispatch because they possess a special skill set, a positive attitude being a vital one. They know every driver by name, bus number, the routes, where to find help if the driver is unfamiliar, and assist with emergencies or mechanical problems. They are problem solvers.

Dispatchers should have general knowledge of specialized equipment for students with disabilities and children in preschool and Head Start, especially child safety restraint systems. They must understand what school buses can transport wheelchairs and other equipment. They need to understand driver qualifications, expectations and student requirements.

Technology and data are critical when assisting drivers and should be readily available. It includes but is not limited to student information, road closures and street information and routes. Regardless of the dispatcher’s background or district they must master multi-tasking.

Technology also varies from district to district and has improved immensely over time, from how to communicate to where to find data. Is video in real time or downloaded for later review. First, consider two-way radio systems and capabilities. Districts have moved from analog to digital communications. Some systems allow local emergency personnel the capability of patching into the district system, allowing 911 dispatch to listen and communicate directly rather than relaying information from a third party. The new communication systems allow cellular use and the possibility of analytics data in one place to make quicker, better decisions. If you have not explored the new radio technology, it is worth your time just to get a glimpse into the future.

Some districts have sophisticated routing systems while other small and/or rural districts still have maps with pegs hanging on the wall or route sheets in a binder. Some districts have the capability to acquire all GPS and routing information, which includes student health care instructions, Behavioral Intervention Plans (BIP) and Individual Education Programs (IEP). Behavior documentation required by the district should also be included in the student system.

Accessing confidential information on a need to know basis makes the dispatchers better equipped to assist in the transport of children in the safest manner possible. Employees should understand basic laws and regulations related to transporting students and understand the intent of IDEA and a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The Family Rights to Privacy Act (FERPA), procedural safeguards, the basics of IEPs and BIPs, and student rights are priorities. Any person that receives identifiable student information is required to have confidentiality training.

Not all districts have this data in one place, but the information must be available. Some districts have sophisticated camera systems with zoom capabilities to enable staff to see behavioral details up close. Systems even allow dispatchers to log in and view what is happening on the bus in real time. Most districts with cameras must download the data to view it later, some do not have cameras on every school bus.

When hiring a dispatcher administration should update and review the description to encompass the multifaceted responsibilities of dispatching. This includes skills that incorporate a positive attitude that is welcoming with the ability to listen as well as verbalize and provide written communication daily. The selection process should include an array of problem-solving scenarios that cover many topics such as finding a student that did not arrive home after school. A bus stalled and students will be late for school is another scenario.

Training should provide a clear understanding of the dispatcher’s essential functions, duties and required training to allow safe daily operations. The tool kit should be well stocked and must have information when they are expected to provide support and have the knowledge to lead the driver and the children to safety.

In the dispatcher’s world, every decision is a delicate balance between efficiency and safety. A favorite question overheard on the radio echoes the uncertainty
of the road: “There were no signs stating the road would be closed ahead. The road is closed, I cannot go any further, what should I do?” The dispatcher does not have a crystal ball, yet they understand that the driver, being on the scene, is the only one who knows the best way to navigate the situation. The dispatcher’s role is to keep the driver calm enough to think things through.

While staff meetings and training sessions may inadvertently exclude them, the importance of their role cannot be overstated. Tough calls and tough decisions arise without warning, and without proper guidance and education, the potential for errors increases.

How to locate students that board the wrong bus or exit at a stop other than their own? Procedures for finding the child should include video surveillance if available, language to use when communicating with parents, administrators and others.

When do you call authorities and administration or reach out for help? There is nothing scarier than a parent who cannot find their child. Procedures may include calling students that rode the bus to ask if they saw the student board or exit. Parents are not privy to student information because of confidentiality. Staff members are the only ones who should make the call. Who can watch the video and who can or cannot be part of the discussion and training?

Administrative and leadership responsibilities are necessary when focusing on the dispatcher. The position description should be updated to encompass the multifaceted responsibilities of dispatching. Training sessions should address challenges and include real problem-solving as well as cover a comprehensive array of topics, from policies and procedures, communication skills, empathy, listening skills, documentation, call logs, schedules, bell times, length of ride, and the ability to multitask with effective communication. Student safety along with understanding the unique challenges each route presents, accident and evacuation protocol, fit for duty, drug testing and basic CDL requirements, software training, office tips and tricks, bus stops requirements, routing, spare school bus information, and what to do if there is not a driver or attendant available are all valuable skills.

The school bus dispatcher is more than a voice on the radio. They are the backbone of a well-functioning transportation system. Facilitate discussion and training to ensure administration and dispatchers have a clear understanding of the dispatcher’s essential functions, duties and required training for navigating the complexities of student transportation with efficiency, safety and success.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

Launi Harden is a student transportation consultant and a member of the TSD Conference Tenured Faculty. She is a past NAPT board member and won the NAPT Special Needs Award sponsored by Q’Straint/Sure-Lok in 2016 and the Peter J. Grandolfo Memorial Award of Excellence in 2014.

Related: School Bus Dispatch Center: ‘Managed Chaos’ in Illinois District
Related: The Importance of School Bus Safety: Enhancing Communication Through Two-Way Radios
Related: Benefits of Push-to-Talk over Cellular Radios in Education Settings
Related: School Bus Driver Creates Children’s Book to Promote School Bus Safety

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