Friday, January 31, 2014

Ask the Expert - Steve Marshall, Safety and Compliance Officer Crawford Area Transportation Authority in Meadville, PA

First Responders in Winter Weather - CATA buses were used as warming shelters for firefighters, residents, and for thawing firefighting equipment during a four-alarm fire in Meadville, PA in
January 2014.

You’re the Safety and Compliance Officer with Crawford Area Transportation Authority.  Please tell us a little about how you started your career in public transportation and what your position entails.
I had spent years as a Fire Dept. training officer and Asst. Fire Chief. Quality training is a huge issue in transit….and these days, transit buses and their drivers are considered part of the first responder corps that is available to come to the rescue when disaster hits, so it was a natural fit.  I was initially hired as a supervisor and then promoted to Safety & Compliance when our Executive Director decided that with the phenomenal growth CATA had experienced, we needed a dedicated compliance person who would focus on safety, training, risk management and compliance with regulations….such as the ADA.
CATA has the lowest cost-per-mile of any rural fixed route transit system in the state of Pennsylvania. Our management structure is small and streamlined, so each of us has many responsibilities. My main responsibilities are safety, accident investigation, training, human resources, route planning, risk management and compliance. I also run our DOT Drug and Alcohol Testing program.
Crawford County is south of Erie, PA. Please tell us about the size of your system and your fixed-route and door-to-door services. It looks like you also provide service for several universities in the area.  

We are in the “snow-bow” south of Erie, which makes for some interesting days. We run a total of 10 fixed routes with large Gillig buses and have about 35 shared ride buses. Crawford County is one of the largest counties in the state, about 1,000 square miles…but way down the list on population. We have a lot of remote dirt roads in our county and they see CATA buses frequently.
There is a story that was told to me by a local citizen and I pass that story on to our new drivers to help explain what rural transit is all about.
Our county is home to a number of large gamelands where hunting is a huge deal. The gamelands are crissed crossed with roads and trails…some good, some not. One quite snowy day, two hunters were hunkered down next to a snow covered gameland trail, waiting for the deer, miles from the nearest road (or so they thought!). They heard a noise in the snow-obscured distance. Pretty soon a CATA bus materialized out of the snow squall and stops for them. They were so dumb struck at the site of a transit bus in the deep woods that at first they couldn’t find the words to tell the driver they didn’t need a ride. Sometimes rural transit really means RURAL!
ALL of our vehicles are ADA-compliant. We do over 300,000 trips annually, which for an area of this population, is an incredible number. We are experiencing a 20% annual growth in service demand. I attribute those numbers to the very pro-active work of our Executive Director and Operations Manager who work hard to get the word out about us by visiting potential customers such as nursing homes, senior centers and local community groups. We also provide dedicated bus service to Allegheny College and University of Pittsburgh at Titusville. Our area is an aging community. We have a large number of senior citizens who depend on CATA because most of the younger members of their families have left the area looking for work or an education, leaving Mom and Dad living here without someone to take them where they need to go. That’s where CATA comes in. We do hundreds of routine necessity trips a week. Mom can get out to the hair dresser, then the grocery store and then stop at the pharmacy or doctor’s office and never have to worry about the weather, parking, gas prices or their health affecting her driving abilities.  We have seen an increase in recreational trips too. Groups of seniors who get together to go to special events, be it shopping at a distant mall, a concert, ball game or a special restaurant. That they call us for this leisure travel is in my opinion, a clear indication that we are doing something right.
ESPA’s focus in February is customer service.  What type of training does CATA offer its employees on customer service topics, particularly customer service for riders with disabilities?  How often do you offer training to your operators and office employees?
CATA has a five-day classroom initial drivers training course which is followed by five days of riding with a “Mentor” Driver. These are senior drivers who have the experience and pass on what they know about the routes and how buses really work…outside of the classroom. New CATA drivers also spend an entire day in our training bus, working on mobility device securement and passenger assistance. The new drivers then spend a couple of days with one of our most senior drivers who has over 20 years experience and knows how to secure just about any device you could get on board.  Only when she is satisfied that the new drivers are ready, do they get to move on to the final phases of our training program which includes evacuation of people with mobility impairments (with a rescue dummy and smoke machine) and disability awareness training. We also have twice-yearly safety meetings where we cover subjects like new regulations, equipment & service changes and continuing education training.
All of our non-driving employees such as dispatchers, book keepers, bus cleaners, and administrative assistants are required to complete the disability awareness and disability customer service sections of our driver training. We also train our drivers how to handle some of the more common medical emergencies they may encounter such as seizures, strokes and dementia. Our “seasoned” drivers are also required to recertify each year in mobility device securement.
CATA employees participating in a training course.

Are there any “lessons learned” or “words of wisdom” regarding safety, compliance, and customer service that you think are particularly important? What would be your top two or three tips for operators serving people with disabilities?
I tell all of our new drivers to remember that any one of us could be needing this service at some point in our lives, be it from an accident, illness or just advancing years…put yourselves in their place and be the solution to their transportation challenge. In the case of our senior citizens, their trip with CATA may very well be the highlight of that person’s social life. This may be their only contact with the world. Go the extra mile and make it a special day.
This job is NOT about driving the bus. This job is about getting the customers where they need to go. The bus driving is just a tool to get the job done!
#1 Be understanding. Be patient.

#2 Treat the customers exactly like you would want to be treated. Treat them as if they were your mother, father, brother, or sister.

#3 Treat the customer as a person, not a disability. Talk to the person, not the device!

#4 Everyone has a bad day now and then. If you encounter a customer having issues and they take it out on you, remember, it’s not personal. Let it go. When you park the bus at the end of your shift, leave those stresses on the bus. Don’t take it home with you. When you come back to work tomorrow, you will probably find that those stresses left the bus in the night. 
Final thoughts?

#1 With the aging of America’s population, ADA-compliant travel is in ever increasing demand. We must be pro-active and be ready. We must not treat a person who has a mobility challenge as a problem, but rather as a chance to prove we are the solution to the transportation challenge they face each day.
#2 The hiring of good people is essential. It is not enough to be able to safely drive a bus. In fact we’ve hired some who have never driven a large vehicle in their life. We hired them because it was apparent that they were a “people person”.  I can teach most to drive safely and do the job. I can’t teach you to be a pleasant, out-going human being. That’s a quality you are born with or not! 

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