5 Tips for Keeping Bus Operators Safe

Posted on July 27, 2016 by Zach Stone - Also by this author

GTA
GTA
Ah, summer. Pool parties, barbecues, the smell of honeysuckle and the sight of lightning bugs. Or — a rise in crime, agitated riders seeking air conditioning, heat stroke, a new fiscal year, and the necessary, but unpopular, fare increases. However you view the summer months, with a direct correlation between high temperatures and increased crime, it's vital for transit leaders to be asking themselves, "Have we done everything possible to keep our people safe?" The following is a list of best practices from across the entire transit industry that focus on how authorities were able to dramatically increase safety, rider satisfaction and morale, while also reducing assaults.

1. Heat mapping incidents: If you examine all incident reports around fare evasion, conflict, violence and crime, you will most likely see a pattern. One of the most efficient ways to cut down on these issues is to create a map of high concentrated problem areas and place security/supervisors/law enforcement officers on those lines or at those locations.

  • Run focus groups with operators to uncover qualitative data on “trouble areas.”
  • Use all of the incident reports at your disposal to map out these areas.
  • OpenHeatMap.com is a free tool, and ARCGIS is a more in-depth professional grade tool for mapping.
  • Place properly trained support in these areas and watch your incidents drop.

2. Reevaluating fare collection: 95% of assaults are fare related according to the TCRP 93 report that examined operator assaults across transit. Authorities that have moved from a fare collection to a customer service focus have seen a massive drop in conflicts. If you call managing fare evasion things like “challenging the customer,” or “confronting for fare,” we recommend changing that language immediately. It sets your operators up for failure, because most do not have the proper training or have access to the tools needed if that goes wrong. System-wide education will be required, because some operators like having the authority to eject riders over the fare even if it leads to them having violent confrontations. Forced fare collection fits more in an era where every bus was not equipped with cameras and microphones, when our society had more respect for authority, not every rider was equipped with a video camera and customer service satisfaction was not one of the highest priorities. Times have changed and so should fare policies; for MOST authorities, lawsuits, assaults, turnover, sick days, rule violations and bad PR costs more than all of your fare evaders combined. Strategies that have paid off big:

  • “Check and Request” policy rather than a “Collect It” policy. Allow drivers to use their discretion. Instead of demanding fare, they explain to riders the cost of the ride and ask them if they can pay. Repeat fare evaders are dealt with by police, not operators if possible.
  • Programming the automated announcement system to tell riders at every stop what the fare is, and that they must put it in to ride, taking the pressure off of the operator to enforce fare violations, which again, are responsible for 95% of assaults.
  • Have undercover officers or security ride the bus and swiftly deal with fare evaders, which will quickly send a message. This allows operators to focus on giving great customer service, rather than being trapped in combative exchanges with the smaller percentage who don't follow rules.
  • Educating drivers on the safest ways to manage fare collection.

3. Put more responders on call: When drivers feel alone, they go rogue. Faulty radio equipment, improperly trained responders and a lack of responders available to take calls are all partly responsible for low morale, increased conflicts and poor customer service ratings. I have personally trained thousands of operators to manage conflict at all stages of their careers. When in conflict, we make decisions based solely on our survival instincts unless there is an excellent system in place that we can fall back on. If a driver calls in for help, and doesn’t receive a timely response — please understand that most conflicts go from start to finish in under three minutes max — they are more likely to fall into survival patterns and act outside of company policy. Authorities who have a quick and supportive response available for operators who request back up have less physical and verbal conflict, higher morale and higher customer service scores.

4. Consistency: Your board dictates to you that fare collection is your highest priority. You set about making sure that all of your managers and frontline operators know to drag the fare out of riders no matter the cost, as your board instructed. Unfortunately, you see a serious dip in customer service satisfaction. You turn to your board for help, and they say “Well, if they don’t have the fare, just let ‘em ride! Customer service first! But...if we don’t see greater fare increases, we will be asking YOU why.” This is exactly the dilemma faced by transit drivers in many authorities. They are told that fare collection is priority number one, and when they call for backup to assist in enforcing the rule, they are told to “let the passenger ride.” It places all parties in an awkward and very confusing situation going forward about “What exactly is policy?” Authorities must adopt a very clear and consistent policy around revenue collection. If fare is your priority, supervisors should not be allowing fare evaders to ride when a driver calls for support in a dispute. When supervisors contradict policy or an operator publicly (unless the operator is acting well outside of the rules) then this undermines the operator's ability to do their job and makes them much less likely to enforce policy in the future.

5. Air conditioning and other broken things: When the bus is hot, your operators and passengers become agitated and are more likely to have conflicts or violence.

Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation in Great Neck, N.Y. states that, “An increase in body temperature causes your heart rate to go up and your blood pressure to rise as your body tries to cool itself off.”

Brad Bushman, who has studied the link between hotter temperatures and criminal behavior says, “When we’re overheated and annoyed, we don’t feel like we’re worked up.

We might think ’Oh man, I feel drained, I feel sluggish, I’m dragging.’ But if you measure the person's aggression, it actually increases with increases in temperature. That’s bad news because people become less likely to gauge their own anger in the higher temperatures.”

Hot weather also causes vehicle breakdowns. This creates lateness, which also angers riders. The challenge is that, due to lack of proper funding, many authorities struggle to keep completely operational vehicles in service. However, a good leader must realize that when service breaks down, operators, supervisors and customer service agents are feeling direct aggression from passengers that can lead to confrontations. Service interruptions can look bad for the leadership team, but can directly endanger the safety of your front line people. Strategies that have helped:

  • The most obvious (and maybe the hardest) is allocating funds to ensure buses are working properly. Some authorities have created enough savings from decreasing absenteeism and turnover that they could fund vehicle buying projects. (*see chart below*)
  • Better communication with passengers at bus stands, using screens or speakers, that tell them why a bus will be late and how long it may take (coupled with an apology) has worked wonders.
  • Training drivers to manage conflict.
  • Hydration stations (free water bottles or water cooler) at heavily populated rider areas in the hot summer months, which operators have access to.

Below is chart from the FTA that examines where funds are spent in transit. Employee retention and employee management is a massive expenditure. To compound those costs, a transit company of 500 employees is losing an average of $2.75 million a year to employee burnout as evidenced by The Harvard Wellness in the Workplace analysis (a review of over 32 different research studies). Increasing well-being in the workplace created up to a $5 to $1 return on things like health care costs and absenteeism.

This alone should speak volumes about the need to change employee perception, improve safety, and reduce assaults. Employees are not likely to stay at a company and perform at their best when they feel their wellbeing is at risk. There is no correlation between higher pay and job satisfaction. There is, however, a correlation between feelings of safety and appreciation and job satisfaction/job retention.

When your employees feel that they are not safe, they go into survival mode. Behaviors associated with survival mode are in direct conflict with customer service and driving a vehicle properly. In authorities where drivers do not feel safe, we see low morale, distrust in management, increased assaults and verbal conflict, high absenteeism, higher turnover, increased sick days, and poor customer service satisfaction. The summer months are one of the worst times of the year for violence, and as leaders, it's up to you to protect your people. Ask yourself, “Am I doing everything I can to keep my people safe?”

Zach Stone is co-founder/chief strategy officer for Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm.

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