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Driver Lifestyles

Dispatchers & Drivers

By Gary Addis
Posted Sep 27th 2002 3:08PM

"Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution yet." - Mae West

God knows, there's enough written about the lifestyles of freight haulers at last count, fourteen trade journals are distributed nationally at truck stops and fleet terminals. Besides, who knows life on the road better than we who live it?

We don't need an outsider telling us how bad we have it. We are all too familiar with stupid four-wheeler tricks, foul weather driving, power-mad clerks at loading docks, DOT inspections and silly interstate lane restrictions.

But it occurred to me the other day that most of us know very little about life at the other end of the phone cord. Dispatchers talk on the telephone, right? What's so hard about that?

Like probably every one of you, several times a year I give serious thought to hanging up the ol' keys. For about five minutes during a New Year's Eve party I considered going back to college and becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a nuclear physicist. But then my wife handed me another bottle of beer, so I regained my senses.

The next morning, wallowing in hangover-induced introspection, I had to accept a fact. Driving a truck is all I know how to do. And at my age (I'm 51), it's not likely that I'll develop any other marketable skills before I retire.

So, a few days ago while my truck was receiving a major engine overhaul I decided to hang out with my dispatcher, maybe ask a few questions. You know, sorta see how the other half lives.

Some truckers are always on the road; some truckers are home every day. Some (tankers and flatbeds) never bump a dock; some drivers have to sweat out the inches at 20 or more deliveries per load.

Likewise with dispatchers. Some have to please 150 or more individual drivers; some dispatchers handle a single truck. Some dispatchers are blessed(?) with satellite tracking, in-cab telephones and pager communications with their trucks and drivers.

Some dispatchers and their drivers have to rely on uncovered payphones out in the rain (when the poor guy can find one).

Some dispatchers are imbued with dictatorial power over their drivers, who are known only by a number; some dispatchers are treated like pond scum by both drivers and fleet management.

In other words, you can't make generalizations about either drivers or dispatchers.

My friend Keith Hamblin was a driver for most of his adult life. About five years ago he stepped out of a truck and into a dispatch office. Because he is good at it, he quickly advanced; now he's Operations Manager for a mid-sized fleet.

I asked him to describe a typical dispatcher's day.

"Well, my dispatch experience was different from that of a lot of people because of the type of company I worked for," Keith says. "My job was to dispatch 55 drivers delivering within a 300 mile radius of our terminal. I would start at 5:30 in the morning, usually about a half-hour before the drivers reported.

"First, I checked any work orders, pre-notes or rail notifications that were faxed in during the night. Next, I went over the day's schedule, which I had put together the night before. I checked trailer/load locations, making certain that I had everything covered.

This is always a juggling act. If your drivers are dependable, the weather cooperates and the equipment doesn't break down, you can be sure that every truck will make its first appointment.

But the second appointment is rather iffy, because you don't know whether the customers will keep up their end of the bargain. Mainly this means loading or unloading the trailer in a timely fashion.

"Next, you have to decide which drivers to assign to which loads. You have to allow for the fact that certain drivers hate certain things but other drivers love that particular customer.

You try to match the right driver to the right customer whenever possible because it just makes things much easier for everyone. It is more profitable in the long run also; a driver seems to move faster if he likes what he is doing.

Once the schedule has been adjusted for any new moves that came in during the night you start assigning drivers to loads.

"The rest of the day I spent answering phones, faxes and 2-way radios. The key to success is flexibility. Without it you are dead.

"To get an understanding of what the phones and radios are like on an average day you have to do a little math. Let's say that you have 30 drivers and each has multiple pickups and drops to deal with. Each of those drivers must call you for each move they make."

"They call when they pick up a trailer from the rail to get an address, a pick-up number and ant special delivery instructions. They call again to let you know when they have left the rail. They call again when they reach destination."

"They call again when the consignee has finished with the trailer and the driver needs instructions for the next move."

"Unless there are problems with the load, in which case you usually have to make several phone calls yourself to a shipper or broker or forwarder or OS&D or the insurance company or whoever else might be involved with the move. Sometimes you have to make several calls to some of these people before you get the problem solved. "

"Along with incoming calls from the drivers you have customers calling, too. 'Has this trailer delivered yet?' 'Have you made an appointment for this trailer yet?' 'Can you make this EMERGENCY delivery right away?' 'How much will you charge me to do this move?' The list is endless and the calls are never-ending. During a typical day I logged 50 or more calls every hour of the day."

"Finally after a long day of pure chaos you go home. I didn't leave until my work was done, or as much of it as a human could accomplish in one day. This usually meant, minimum, a 12-hour day without leaving the office for anything except quick trips to the bathroom."

"At home finally, my nerves frazzled, I then had to worry all night about what didn't get done or something I may have forgotten."

The number one complaint I hear from drivers about dispatchers; the number one reason that drivers give for quitting a company is that their dispatcher(s) lied to them. Do they? Do drivers ever lie to their dispatchers? Hey, dispatchers are as human as drivers, so, of course, they sometimes lie. Sometimes, telling a lie is deemed necessary to avoid an energy-draining fight.

Imagine you are standing in a large room stuffed with people. Everyone is talking to or yelling at you at once. Some are happy, some just want to complain about something and you are a convenient target. But all of them want something from you. You are doing your very best to accommodate everyone but as quick as you get one person satisfied, another group or person is shouting because you havn't met their needs.

Too often, if the drivers are happy, then either the customers or the safety department or management is really upset. So you try to satisfy whoever is the most upset.

Too often, this means that the squeaking wheel (the chronic complainer) is the one that gets the grease to the detriment of everyone else. But those kind of people don't stay with any one company for long they're usually not around long enough for the insurance to become effective.

They bitch and moan, until somebody finally snaps, "If you want to quit, then go ahead and quit! Frankly, I wish you would!"

We drivers must understand that there is another human being at the end of the phone cord. A person with the same needs as you. A person who deserves respect. As I informed a dispatcher not long ago, sarcasm begats sarcasm; respect breeds respect.

Honesty is the key to all human interaction. When you're honest with people, it encourages people to be honest with you. Drivers deserve the truth.

Mr. Dispatcher, a good dispatcher will jeopardize a load to avoid telling a lie. If a shipper takes all day to load, then tell the driver. He won't like it, but he'll be prepared to sit awhile when he arrives.

If a load will be borderline overweight, tell your driver in advance, give him the opportunity to plan his route ahead. Better to know up front, always.

Mr. Professional Driver, you need to be honest as well. If you sat up all night talking to buddies in the truckstop when you ought to have been driving or sleeping, don't blame it on the weather, the loading dock crew, the traffic, or your equipment.

Dispatchers are human too, and most do understand that other humans sometimes fall short of perfection. Your dispatcher wants to help, believe it or not.

In an email message, dispatcher Bildo offered this advice: "A dispatcher can't help fix a problem if he doesn't know it exists. Simple honest communication between drivers and dispatchers make every load run smoother."

Dispatching and driving must be a team effort. We all must be aware that we're in this thing together. That we are a two-headed coin. Neither one can exist without the other.

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