A Sixth Sense of Safety

April 20, 2015

We refer to the employees that drive our revenue service vehicles as operators instead of drivers at VIA. The difference being a driver is concerned with driving the vehicle down the road and doesn’t concern themselves with customer interaction and providing that extra level of courtesy or compromise that often maintains a peaceful environment. Whereas an operator is aware and understands that the role they play is much more than someone who knows the route and gets the customers to their destination.

Operator’s that have driven through the years have developed a “Sixth sense” that they often rely on to inform them of potential dangers, difficult or suspicious circumstances while in service. If you speak to your operator’s you will find that many can practically predict when a vehicle is about turn in front of them without using a turn signal. They can tell who is about to board the bus with an excuse for not having the fare, as well as which customers are “new” along their route.

Encouraging our operators to use that ability in identifying early warning signs of escalating/evolving situations and clearly recognizing the last opportunity available for them to make a logical decision versus an emotional decision when dealing with difficult customers, was the goal of our efforts to address some of the daily stresses an operator encounters. You see, operators know how to drive the bus but haven’t really been given permission to utilize the sixth sense they have developed to remain safe through the years towards dealing with customer conflict issues and identifying the moment when it’s time to contact a higher authority. How often have you viewed footage of scenarios where several opportunities had come and gone where the operator could and probably should have just contacted the dispatcher, a supervisor or transit police; but instead furthered the scenario by having the last word or tried to get both verbal and physical compliance from the customer?

Avoiding the ‘Conflict Trap’

In our business we know there are customers that seek to put the operator in uncomfortable situations to cloud or disrupt the operator’s normal train of thought, enabling the customer to capitalize on a poor decision or act made by an operator that has lost emotional control during a situation. That is an unfortunate norm in our industry.

We decided to remind the veteran operators, and inform the new hires, of common transportation norms so they would understand just that. Norms have happened long before you started this position and will be here long after you’ve retired. Identifying norms to new hires is critical because if they understand that it is as much a part of the job as is being stuck in traffic; they should not expect for them to go away, nor are they acceptable excuses for them to lose control and find themselves in heated conversation because someone is doing what is done on thousands of buses everyday across the country. (Not having fare ready when they board, being asked Where’s this bus going, You work for me I pay your salary, You’re late, I know the CEO, customer’s that need to re-validate and triple check information they have seen and been told before).

We developed a program to provide methods to create more opportunities for operators to avoid the “Conflict Trap” being set by customers that sought to disrupt service and help them respond better to stressful situations.

It’s understood that the role an operator plays in providing daily service is a difficult one. The expectation of repeated multitasking of knowledge, skill and abilities; as well as knowing that addressing evolving and sometimes dynamic customer service scenarios, can often place an operator in a position of merely reacting to the events of the day instead of preparing for the norms of each day.

We understood that veteran operators wore their length of service as a badge of honor and often used it as a measuring stick to measure the transportation height of their fellow operators that were many years their junior, with much less seniority. This jokingly occurs every day in every system among operators. We also understood the generational differences between our operators and knew that newer operators were not as interested in old war stories, and quickly placed veteran stories of experience on how they deal with difficult customers in the category of “that was then this is now and I don’t have time for another story from all your years of driving,” category.

So we knew that if the program contained relevant circumstances that operators of all generations dealt with daily, we could strike a chord of interest with content they could both actually apply in the vehicle instead of just the classroom.

Operator feedback was immediate. They mentioned how the program was finally more interactive, the topics were direct and to the point and that, “Finally some of these young operators can learn what I learned on my own years ago in this business.” We knew we had in fact struck a chord.

Find the sixth sense of driving

It is critical to understand what life is like inside that vehicle for the operator. It is necessary for you to identify that this notion of a operators having a sixth sense exists. Once that connection is made and understood, you will find operators more open to discussion on solutions rather than focusing on systemic issues.

Awareness factors we used to identify to operators that their sixth sense was alive and well in daily service were as follows:

As a seasoned operator your sixth sense has given you the ability to:

  • Predict bad decisions by motorists in front of/around you
  • Identify who has a fare excuse, before they board the vehicle
  • Understand what a customer really wants to know even though they can’t explain it
  • Be willing to bend over backwards to assist, as long as the  customer doesn’t lie to you
  • Understand when a customer has had a really bad day
  • Recognize when to instantly utilize your “thicker skin” to  stay focused/make smarter decisions

Once the operators understand that those who do not drive buses finally credit them for their ability to predict actions around them, it’s easier for you to realize that the same ability should also be used to predict escalating situations. That was the neighborhood we chose to live in with our operators. Teaching them that it was time for them to use that sense to recognize moments and indicators of opportunity for them to show due diligence, manage the moment, know their limits and more importantly to clearly identify when it’s time to contact a higher authority.

The program had begun as an annual refresher and quickly became a component of our qualification training, customer service refresher training as well as return to work training for operators who had been out for extended absence.

Collaborating for safety

Our efforts to address the concerns and needs of the operators did not end with the training component. There has been a collaborative approach to enable the operators to see more examples of support and understanding for the difficult job they do for the organization.

VIA’s Excellence award program spotlights those with exceptional performance, attendance and customer service. The excellence award program is held for both operators and VIA’s award winning maintenance employees. The program is a big thank you to the employees that have given more than just what the job description requires. It is progressive, dynamic and more recently involved a family event where award recipients were encouraged to bring their entire family with them to a well-known venue that has rock climbing, bowling, gaming, food and family entertainment. That entire venue was reserved just for them.

VIA’s safety supervisors being more visible along the route and in the downtown area connecting with operators, thanking them for their service and listening to concerns reminds the operators that they are not out there alone. Via’s transportation field supervisor’s have also played a key role in connecting with operators to address concerns and their Vice President Alva Carrasco has implemented many amenities for the operators use, for the times they are at work and not behind the wheel.

VIA’s Transit Police officers meeting and connecting with labor representatives to better understand the needs and concerns of operators is an important bond that enables them to work as a team to maintain the safety of our system for our customers.

VIA’s Safe Program, which is the second phase of our “See Something Say Something” campaign, includes uniformed, plain clothed, and K-9 team law enforcement officers boarding and sweeping buses to further demonstrate our efforts to provide a safer rider experience for our customers, the operator’s and the community.

We’ve been fortunate to have a progressive leadership style by our CEO Jeff Arndt and Deputy CEO Keith Hom, in how they have challenged and empowered the departments directly involved with front line employees to be innovative and creative in how we elevate the mindset of how we provide service.

It’s important to realize that it takes more than a training program to address the stress that impacts the knowledge, skills and abilities of an operator, which seem to get tested each day on the job. But, a program that actually connects with the organic issues that the operator’s face vs. a program full of clever quips, phrases that may actually escalate situations or classroom sessions that work great inside; but fall short of what really goes on in the small 5ft space that operators work within inside the vehicle, is critical in modifying behavior and response.

We emphasize to our operators that you don’t have to have the last word, because you have the last action (Calling the Dispatcher, Supervisor or Transit Police). If you feel you always have to have the last word and you have the authority to have the last action, you actually contribute to, and create potential violent scenarios as well as make enemies along your route. Don’t fall for customer tricks to change your attitude. Yes they will be mouthy and visibly show their reluctance to comply, but use your sixth sense, that gut instinct that has kept you safe and out of harms way for all of your years of service. It’s your predictive instinct that tells you right away how this scenario ends, but when you find yourself in a heated conversation about transit norms…you have to realize that it’s called a norm for a reason.

When operators react with phrases that make them feel good during escalating conditions, their probably not doing so well; or at a minimum being sarcastic or rhetorical. Due diligence must be shown to stay above reproach and demonstrate that they are not someone that has the chip on their shoulder. In this day of video capture and replay, it is very easy to identify missed opportunities.

Maintaining professional presence is critical for the operator. Our program teaches our operators:

  • You have to look confident and competent, to play the part
  • Know the system & where your responsibility begins/ends
  • Know when it is time to contact a higher authority (Dispatcher, Supervisor, Transit Police)
  • Be aware of your demeanor and non-verbal communicators (Hands, eyes, facial expressions)

If you’ve ever wondered why some operators seem to always find themselves on the wrong side of scenarios, take a closer look at the bullets above…you will be able to identify the area(s) that need more attention in your coaching/counseling of that operator’s performance.

The operator-based information regarding the sixth sense is not based on theory, it is a known ability/practice demonstrated by operators each and everyday across the country. I know because I was one. I proudly started my career in transit as an operator 26 years ago. We work hard at VIA to remind those that operate our buses of the distinct difference between drivers and operators. It is incumbent of all of us at our respective properties; to remain connected to the realities our operators face, as they are the true face of transit to our customers/communities as they provide the level of service our industry demands.

Tremell E. Brown is the vice president of safety,training & system security for VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas and former two term National Transit Institute Fellow.