Q’STRAINT’s Co-President Patrick Girardin believes COVID taught the company a valuable lesson about maintaining relationships in new and unusual ways.
For nearly four decades, Q’STRAINT has been the global industry leader in wheelchair passenger safety. Beginning with its first four-point system, the family-run business has worked tirelessly to fulfill its mission of “Making Safety Accessible” by developing products that afford mobility passengers the same level of safety as those around them. Q’STRAINT also works closely with global standards groups to help define wheelchair securement regulations and ensure that mobility device users in every country have access to the highest levels of safety.
METRO had the chance to speak with Patrick Girardin, the co-president of Q’STRAINT/SureLok. He spoke about how their products bring equity to public transportation, as well as how they collaborate with agencies to provide training on the proper usage of Q’STRAINT products. He also shared the effect of the pandemic on their company and the industry.
What are the biggest challenges facing the public transportation sector with regard to accessibility?
The basic challenge we’ve always faced is how to provide wheelchair passengers the same level of safety and access that everyone else in that vehicle has. Clearly, over the last few years with COVID, we now face a whole set of new challenges, specifically accelerated driver turnover with an even greater need for high-quality training. This is a big issue because it’s a very demanding job and certified training is the only way to keep everyone — wheelchair users, non-ADA passengers, and even the drivers themselves, safe. Proper training goes a long way toward retaining those drivers as well. Obviously, the impact of COVID varies from state to state and even city to city, so we have been partnering with properties everywhere to face those challenges head-on.
Are you getting that feedback from your clients? Are they asking for more training, or for Q’STRAINT to come back to provide more training because of the high turnover?
We have always worked hand-in-hand with our customers, and training has been a big part of our DNA. I know every company says that, but it’s different in our case because we’re in the business of safety, where training can prove to be the difference between life and death. There are many products on that bus that meet ADA or some form of standard, but only if the product is actually being utilized correctly can it be effective. So there has always been a high level of requests for effective training, and this has been multiplied in the wake of even higher turnover over the past few years.
Can you talk about the importance of bringing equity to transportation customers?
It's in our mission.
We believe that every wheelchair passenger deserves the same level of safety as everyone else, and this mission is not just about accessibility, but about access to safety. So we like to believe that we’re in the business of equity — long before it became a buzzword in recent years.
The first time a Q’STRAINT system was used was the very first time a wheelchair passenger met the same safety standard as everyone else in that same vehicle. And while the technology and products have evolved over the years, that’s the one piece of the puzzle that has remained.
Can you talk a little bit about your products and some of the key innovations that have helped shape the industry?
The Q’POD and QUANTUM are the two main transit bus products that everyone knows and which we feel have had the biggest impact on the industry. If you go back and look at the securement landscape just 10 or 15 years ago, there was a high level of customization and randomness. What I mean by that is that because every bus has a different seating layout, different securement products installed, or passengers using different devices, this is, and I wish I had a better word for this, a nightmare for the OEMs, for people who create bus specifications, and for applications engineering testing. So as a result, when a driver gets on a bus, they just never knew what to expect.
We feel our products have been a huge leap forward in this regard because they are designed as integrated products that work the same way every time. So now if a New York City or a Chicago transit agency, for instance, has trained their driver on how to use one of these products, they pretty much know how to use them no matter what kind of bus configuration or happenstance they encounter. Standardization is huge. It doesn’t sound ‘innovative,’ but it’s important in a space where we have endless possibilities and the highest levels of responsibility. That familiarity and training with the product can be the difference between life and death of a wheelchair passenger in the event of an accident. So that integration and cohesiveness of the product line is really the key innovation we brought to market. We’re doing the same thing now in paratransit with our new product called the ‘Q’STRAINT ONE;’ an integrated platform that takes away the possibility of having to encounter thousands of variations in retractors, lap and shoulder belt combinations, or anchorage and flooring solutions that may depend on what vehicle the driver is assigned to that day.
How does Q’STRAINT work with advocacy groups?
I feel as if we advocate through our products and there are groups out there fighting the good fight with us. We share the same mission, but they are also dealing with more than just safety. We support and advocate for wheelchair passengers and have been really excited to see so many transit properties in the last 10 or 20 years get closer and closer with their local advocates. It used to be that just 10 or 20 years ago, wheelchair passenger safety was not necessarily a low priority, but it was something agencies had to do because it was the law. If you look at agencies now, they have really embraced the relationships they have with their local advocates. We have seen it move from meetings to conversations, to relationships and it is a great trajectory.
From a company standpoint can you talk about how COVID impacted Q’STRAINT?
Fortunately for us, we were deemed essential, so we never shut down during the pandemic. Because of that, the biggest impact on Q’STRAINT, quite honestly, was how it impacted our transit agency partners and navigating those challenges alongside them. For example, normally when we had a product that needed service in the field, we would send a technician out to fix it immediately. But, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, every state, county, and city was handling COVID differently. Sometimes our technicians couldn’t visit the property or had to quarantine for several days before they could get to the property to help, only to find the rules change again. It was this consistent level of uncertainty that really had the biggest impact on just about everybody involved in building, delivering, and running vehicles, but we count ourselves fortunate to have been able to stay open and that the actual COVID impact on us was a lot less than what other companies experienced.
With everybody still performing their jobs during that time, what was worker morale like?
Our employees are just awesome. We have a great team and a great culture. We try to hire people that have a strong desire to help others and want to work to live out that mission. We’re in the business of safety, but it’s not just transactional. We establish ongoing relationships with these properties, so while the morale inside our building was high, our people were most disappointed when they could not interact with or help our industry partners like they would have liked to.
What is COVID’s lingering impact and what do you feel Q’STRAINT learned?
In general, we are still feeling the impacts on our supply chain but for transit agencies, it seems to come down to ridership and driver turnover. I do believe that COVID taught us all a valuable lesson about maintaining relationships in new and unusual ways. For us, those relationships extend into our support structure and how we interact with transit providers. So that means application and engineering support, product training, and maintenance support all learned to keep things going with different technologies. We learned that perhaps you don’t always have to be face-to-face every time, but there is no replacement for being together.
What do you hope to see in both the short- and long-term future for Q’STRAINT?
In the short-term, we’d love to see our customers get back to where they want to be and reach their goals and industry expectations. They are still dealing with so many impacts on their businesses, such as ridership, bus deliveries, and other related challenges. We are also seeing some properties legitimately struggle with keeping their routes going because of the aforementioned driver issue. As I said before, our relationships with these agencies are far more than transactional, so we would really like to see them get back on their feet and back to a better sense of normalcy, overall.
Long term, we’d of course love to continue to see the further adoption of our products. We’ve worked hard to make sure everything our customers could need is at their disposal. What has really helped us over the years is that we continue to be involved with our customers on a grassroots level. We don’t simply sell products and disappear. Our people are dedicated to seeing.
At Q’STRAINT, it is not enough to simply provide customers with the best products available on the market. It is also essential that our company and our products continue to evolve and remain relevant, effective, and efficient. This means that Q’STRAINT must continue to help our customers adopt and utilize our products. Being actively engaged in the ongoing development, being a part of the solutions, and continuing to evolve our products are key to ensuring long-term success and growth in today's rapidly changing market.