Private fleets discuss dispatchers, technology and safety

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Fulfilling its promise to hold more educational events for members, the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada (PMTC) hosted a seminar yesterday on medical marijuana in trucking, followed by a fleet panel discussion on key industry issues.

The medical marijuana presentation by Dr. Barry Kurtzer was a re-do of one he recently delivered in Truro, N.S. You can read about it here.

The fleet panel discussion that followed brought together: Jim Dimech, associate director of transportation, merchant and on-site gases with Praxair; Kirk Dickson, vice-president of development, Fortigo Freight Services; and Brent Phillips, lead coordinator, transportation, Cardinal Health. It was moderated by John G. Smith, president of Wordsmith Media.

Smith began by asking the panelists about the keys to recruiting and training dispatchers, an often-overlooked piece to the driver retention puzzle.

“We went away from the term dispatcher,” said Praxair’s Dimech. “We call them planners, because that’s what they’re doing.”

At Praxair, planners set drivers’ routes two to three days in advance so that drivers know what they can expect their schedule to be. The company recently developed a planner-driver engagement code that looked to improve relations between the two groups. Planners learned what drivers value and vice-versa and communication improved almost instantly, Dimech said.

“Once this was rolled out there was an understanding of what each group valued,” he explained. “Communication flowed better. Within months, we saw the relationships and morale between the driving group and logistics group improve.”

Dickson said Fortigo asks prospective dispatchers how they’d handle certain conflict resolution scenarios while interviewing them for the position. They’re also trained for four to six weeks by a mentor before they’re turned loose and encouraged to do a ride-along with a driver so they understand the challenges drivers face on a daily basis.

“We’ll send them out on each of the dedicated contracts they’re responsible for with the drivers, so they start to understand the overall network,” Dickson explained.

At Cardinal Health, the challenge is to ensure dispatchers know how to work respectably with drivers who in many cases have been with the company long-term and have a greater understanding of how things should work.

“We have a lot of 35-year veterans who’ve seen it all,” said Phillips. “A dispatcher can’t be arrogant in his work.”

That means listening with an open mind to drivers who have opinions on the most efficient way to plan a route. Cardinal also insists on ride-alongs with drivers.

“Every new dispatcher has to go with one of the drivers,” he said. He recalled one dispatcher who often would push drivers to shunt trailers at the end of their driving day to maximize all their allowable working hours, who stopped doing so once she had the opportunity to spend a full day on the road with a driver and gained a better appreciation of what they go through.

Technology was another topic addressed by the panel. Dimech said the most helpful technologies employed by Praxair are event-recording systems that capture on camera critical events such as hard braking. Such events have been reduced by 60% in the two years since the cameras were deployed, he said.

“It was a tough sell but the change in behaviour really does show this technology does work and makes us a safer fleet,” he said, adding the technology was installed as a coaching, not a disciplinary, tool.

Cardinal Health began spec’ing automated transmissions, which have improved fuel economy and also been popular with drivers, especially in the city. The fleet also uses tracking systems which have at times exonerated drivers who arrived for a drop on time but were said by the receiver to have been late. Cardinal uses the PeopleNet system to track inefficiencies such as speeding, overrevving, excess idling, etc. Those results are posted, creating some internal competition among drivers. The top performing drivers are rewarded with gift cards.

Dickson said Fortigo brings in guest speakers to address topics such as fuel-efficient driving, idling and shifting patterns. It too, posts the drivers’ performance for all to see and rewards its best drivers.

Fortigo is also big on rewarding safety. It has a President’s Club, which recognizes the fleet’s safest drivers. It is promoted to drivers right from their first day on the job, Dickson said.

“It has to start from the get-go,” Dimech agreed. “In our organization the target we have is zero-zero: zero injuries and zero accidents. That’s our goal.”

To buy into that, drivers must see a commitment from the top of the organization, Dimech added. That means supervisors must be equally accountable about things like wearing their high-viz vests in the yard. Dimech said informal meetings with drivers are held every day, as well as regularly scheduled formal meetings.

Management preaches that, “If they can’t do the job safely, the job stops.”

In an environment where qualified drivers are hard to find, Dickson said customers also have a role to play in making the work environment more amenable for drivers. He said Fortigo will even accommodate customer ride-alongs so they get a different perspective about their own facilities. At one customer, for example, drivers had to trudge through snow and slush with an electric pump truck – a grueling job. When the customer saw this first-hand, “The customer went back to their salespeople and said ‘You can’t expect a driver to shovel the snow.’ The customer becomes an advocate for the driver as well,” Dickson said.

James Menzies

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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