Thursday, May 10, 2012

TAG Report & A Question of Intent: Potential Dispatch & Driver Training Solutions

Speaking of time, who has any to spare.  Hey Buddy, can you spare me an extra ten minutes?   With my pockets turned inside out, I could certainly use a few extra minutes and hours and days. Yesterday I did make it to the Taxi Advisory Group (TAG) meeting with about one minute to spare.  The usual group was there to hear Craig Leisy explain once again the pending meter increases prompted by the Labor & Industry decision to nominate all of the state's independent taxi driver contractors as "covered workers."  My instincts keep telling me that ultimately all of this will be plopped back upon L&I's governmental lap. I also find it slightly amusing that it seems I am the only one out of thousands to believe that.  Once the City of Seattle & King County councils hear about the definition issue and how it threatens their revenue streams I predict a prompt and swift reaction.  I can tell that currently none of the combined council members understand or fully comprehend the situation and issues at hand.  Soon they will and that is when potentially all hell will be breaking loose as the State of Washington has already collected its first quarterly payments from the taxi industry statewide. If the councils say no and shove it, why the State of Washington could begin suing Seattle & KC, with both entities counter-suing.  And why, why are we potentially arriving at this sluggish junction?  Simply because L&I addressed the incorrect parties or industry participants.  By auditing the associations and companies they bypassed the most important group concerning this entire issue, the independent driver contractors.  I remain puzzled by this.  Compounding their error was the industry's response, taking L&I's initiative seriously.  True it is that L&I was intimidating, threatening million dollar liens.  The state-wide taxi industry failed to realize that it was all comedic, falling for what might be termed a grand governmental prank. L&I baited the hook and the taxi trout bit and swam with it.  No one bothered to notice all the taxi minnows swimming about but since it is those very minnows funding the entire industry it was a gigantic strategic error not to talk to all those little fish.  Collectively they are composed into one very BIG FISH which could very well swamp and sink the bureaucratic boat.  In the unfortunate meanwhile companies and associations are being forced to pay big bucks into what could be little more than an imaginary fund, something Lewis Carroll's Alice could only wonder at.  Did anyone check out those mushrooms in the pasta sauce?  Better send them to the State lab for analysis.

Questions of Intent

I am hesitant in beginning this because, can you believe it! the sun is shining and I want to take a long walk through the center of Point Defiance Park, this park the primary reason I bought where I did.  Tuesday an otter was eating its fishy dinner on the Puget shoreline.  Far more interesting than the usual taxi passenger.  I also don't want to go on and on upon an exasperating subject.  I will try to keep it short but I am entirely doubtful if I can.  Oh how I can obsess!

I have more than once talked to various Yellow folks about dispatch, driver training and conduct and the various rules and regulations that are tossed about.  Another "bar break" incident tells me that something MUST change.  As any psychiatrist or therapist will tell you, change is not easy but first you need to recognize that a severe problem exists and in conjunction with that acknowledgement is the willingness for change.  Can Yellow and the other associations change and alter their operating philosophies both here and in the United States as a whole?  Given their history I would not hold my breath concerning any swift prognosis.  A passenger I gave a ride to from one of my misaddressed bells told me that when he lived in San Francisco's Outer Sunset (a neighborhood near the ocean)  he could never get a dispatched taxi to pick him up. I mention this only to stress that problems are shared industry-wide and not just confined to Seattle.  Back in 1970 my own father regaled me with tales of Denver, Colorado taxi madness as he plied the mean streets of East Denver. In the following paragraphs I will be outlining both problems and solutions.  I swear upon a stack of Thomas Guides that the following is true.  All I am asking for is efficiency for both call takers and drivers and passengers. Efficiency is possible and I believe I have some helpful suggestions and remedies.  I know we can do it.  It is all a matter and question of volition.  Does anybody want to change?  I will keep you updated.

Saturday was really getting to me.  How many erroneous and misaddressed calls can one driver take?  I left a message saying it just wasn't one individual.  The problem at dispatch is systemic, it is an institutional failure to take the measures necessary to ensure that mistakes are kept to a bare minimum.  Usually it is said that money is the problem, that a given association doesn't have the financial means to address the issues.  I see it far differently.  From the very beginning of my so-called taxi driving career, from Classic Cab forward indifference and apathy have been the prevailing attitude and theme. Bald tires?  Who cares?  Expired license tabs? Oh really, how could that happen?  That hundreds of people never receive their taxi requested upon busy holiday and Friday and Saturday nights?  And again who cares because no one does anything to change the situation, and early Sunday morning I was punished for inserting myself into the maelstrom.  I do know better but I tire of the repeated pattern of countless people waiting and unless I and a few intrepid others intervene there they will sit for a taxi eternity.  It is a somewhat suicidal gesture but one that is utterly necessary.  Back to Saturday. 

As I said, I was getting a series of misaddressed bells.  Certainly they happen occasionally but when they occur consecutively you know there is a real problem.  Working the West Seattle I got an imaginary address on the 8400 hundred block of a given street when it was actually the 8800 hundred block.  I only found this out by first calling the driver superintendent to get the telephone number.  Yellow has a current rule about not listing most telephone numbers in the bell information so when problems occur you have to call and request it. That is if someone answers either at dispatch or in the superintendent's office.  Your only other recourse is to call the actual public dispatch number, 206-622-6500 and if you get through, having to first listen to the screaming as "you are not supposed to call!"  Funny, isn't it, Ha! Ha! Ha!  You can also send a message over the computer but usually it is "good luck" with that as your SOS is rarely answered.   It is akin to shouting up to the sky hoping for some mysterious God to answer.  Again, good luck with that.  And I only found out the actual address because the waiting passenger called me back after initially ignoring my call. By then it was too late as I on my way to another destination, this too also misaddressed.

Arriving at Fauntleroy Hall I found it to be closed.  No weddings that particular day.  Again calling to get the number for the passenger in question, the former San Francisco resident previously mentioned, I found that he was actually waiting at the West Seattle ferry terminal, somewhat puzzled at the whereabouts of his taxi. He was on his way Pier 69 and the Victoria Clipper for his very first visit to Victoria, British Columbia.  He wore a top hat and loved cloudy weather but still that was no reason to keep him waiting.

Fast forward to early Sunday morning.  I had already rescued two bells.  Responding to a plea in the medical I picked up a DSHS/Hopelink fare at Harborview Hospital, a Uzbek (from Uzbekistan) father and his crippled daughter heading back home to Kirkland.  On the way back I noticed bells stacking up in the 205 (greater Montlake).  The problem with stale calls is that quite often the passengers have given up and you never find them.  Accepting that kind of bell can be instant heartbreak and much wasted time which is why drivers avoid those stacked cluster of calls in a given area.  It is foolish to even attempt to book into these messes but I continually do because all of those bells represent someone who requested a taxi for the simple reason that they needed a ride.  I attempt to be accommodating even when it is less than wise to do so.  Having their out of state telephone number allowed me to find three foreign young women trying to walk who knows where having despaired of ever getting a taxi.  They had been waiting for over an hour.  They were dressed for the dance floor, not the early morning chill. They went to Belltown.

They were again calling for taxis in the medical, saying account fares were waiting so I again headed in that direction though I had no true reason to do so other than trying to serve the customers.  Flags were everywhere but I accepted a fare that said someone was waiting at Virgina Mason ER but I didn't see anything stating that it was an account fare. Now it wouldn't be the first time I misread a bell though I swear I looked at it twice. I found that odd and drove to the new ER turnaround but didn't see anyone.  Normally I thoroughly check out all of my calls, sometimes wasting precious minutes but this time, being tired and feeling temperamental, I said the hell with it.  There is this amazing expectation that the driver should accept dispatch's mistakes and be done with it.  Talk to the dispatch supervisor and you are told nothing can or will be done to improve the situation.  You are literally given no option but to accept the unacceptable.  Sometimes it gets to me.  I sacrifice myself and all I get is another no-show.  After a while it affects the mind and attitude. And if you fail to pick up the fare, you are the one completely responsible.  As I have said more than once, I want to pick up every call I am dispatched to.  The Kirkland fare was almost $45.00.  I have had account fares of over $500.  Why in the world would I avoid picking up an account?  No reason whatsoever.

About 20 minutes later suddenly my computer terminal had been deauthorized, that is, disconnected from the satellite stream.  It can mean many things, simple malfunction to to someone pressing some buttons.  The protocol is that if a given driver is going to be punished for some perceived infraction first a conversation ensues either over the telephone or in person.  It can also mean that you are now considered in some kind of emergency, which means the entire taxi fleet and the police are searching for you.  Given that, I attempted to voice up and got nothing.  I called dispatch and was hurriedly told I had gotten the wrong passenger at Virgina Mason and I was now off the computer for two hours. End of  story!  Given that I believe this was  only the third time in nearly 25 years that I have experienced this I was both confused and insulted.  A few minutes later I talked to her again and had a far more pleasant conversation.  She said that she had told the hospital that I was an "awesome" taxi driver and couldn't understand why I had not picked up the passenger.  Given that she knew me, it would have been reasonable to talk to me first. Well I didn't know the passenger was there, plain and simple, with recent and past experience telling me that it was true though it is also extremely true that I was past disgust. I made a very common and  fatal mistake.  I allowed someone else, in this case dispatch, to drive me crazy.  I attempt to have the patience of a taxi saint.  Sometimes I lose my metaphysical will.  It is as plain and  simple and as complicated as that.

Now that was the preamble.  I have been writing for over three hours and I want out of my office but I must keep going.  On top of that Leisy of Consumer Affairs called and said there was a King News reporter who wanted inside information on the Teamster union rumblings emanating from the Yellow airport crowd.  She will be calling me back anytime now.  As she-who-cannot-be-named has commented many times, I should be getting paid.  Hey, I'll take the job if offered along with the promise that they might consider listening to me. You never know.

Now for the analysis if you hadn't already drifted off to sleep.  My small part of the story happened because there is an undeclared war ongoing between the dispatch and the drivers. Dispatch considers the majority of the drivers (including single-owners) to be reckless (and feckless) fools.  In turn the drivers view dispatch and its policies as punitive, incompetent, uncaring and dictatorial.  My personal view is that dispatch is at times less than efficient and overtly over protective and over reactive.  As I said yesterday, taxi is a tired industry and prone to losing both its cool and perspective.  When one builds a fortress, it can be difficult to see above the walls.  That is clearly happening here.  Mistakes are being made on both sides.  It is time to examine the issues sensibly instead of instantly executing nice drivers.  Shouting, as any taxi driver will tell you, is easy.  Finding true resolution is considerably harder.

Let us examine what happened to me, and consider how it could have been done differently.  First, dispatch said the person had been waiting three hours.  How did that happen?  In the olden days of voice dispatch, they would had announced repeatedly that there were account fares waiting at the various hospitals and sought volunteers to pick them up.  Sometimes the dispatcher would say, "Hey! 92! Would you please pick up the trip at Virgina Mason." and if I was close I would respond, "Sure, I'll be there in 2 minutes."  Later the dispatcher might pick me up with an airport run since I had done him a favor.  Even now I sometimes get requests to call dispatch or simply receive a plea over the MDT to pick up a package or a long-waiting DSHS fare.  And if I am close, that is what I do.  What occurred to me Sunday morning is kind of unprecedented. And part of my discussion is whether it is even legal.  Nothing I know about law gives anyone the authority to be instant judge, jury and executioner. I have in the past asked about this interesting policy but as of yet I have seen no legal documentation authorizing something that appears to happen daily.  Of course dispatch is just trying to retain control of what they view as a motley crew.  I have always appreciated that but what makes our country great is a system of checks and balances.  Punishing people without a formal hearing can not be considered reasonable.  It should not happen.  To further display the absurdity of all this, recently a local soldier has been accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians.  In all the news reports it is spoken of the alleged crimes but in the taxi world it is instant lynching.  Wonderful!

Getting back to my incident, somehow dispatch should have been aware that the Virginia Mason passenger had been sitting for 3 hours.  Dispatch should have made a specific request for someone to pick up the passenger though remember, as I have already noted, the non-account customer is routinely left to fade away.  I am sure that the general passenger would be less than pleased to know that they are a lower priority, that if they fail to get a taxi no one cares.  And how to take care of an over-burdened dispatch system?  The simple answer is money properly applied and very specifically applied reorganization.

The associations should give give their dispatching new priority.  Increased wages would change the caliber of the person applying.  Requiring that everyone had previous taxi driving experience would help ensure that they understood both driver and passenger perspective. And have extra staff on hand during a holiday or weekend evening to both monitor and "refresh" the calls.  It would be a simple matter to tell each caller to call back in a half hour if they were still waiting, providing them with a special number that would reach the monitoring dispatcher.  By doing this, the drivers would be reassured that they were answering "fresh" calls and that the passenger is waiting and ready to go.  By eliminating the doubt, drivers would be far more prone to answer the bells at  a busy moment. Otherwise this unfortunate repetition will continue indefinitely.  What kind of incentive will the average taxi driver have to enter that thicket of whithering fares?  Very little is the obvious answer.

As for the drivers, the byword is training, training, and more training, the kind of very specific training and instruction that will make them prepared for the insanity that is taxi.  It hasn't happened as of yet but it needs to.  If they were more professional to begin with much of what has dispatch "tearing out their hair" would at least be modified if not totally eliminated.  Like I said, the problems are systemic reaching across the industry both here in Seattle and NYC and San Francisco and I am sure everywhere else.  The professional driver is an endangered species. A couple of weekends ago I noticed a driver failing to assist a blind customer into his taxi.  Later that same driver slid on the slippery University Bridge, crashing into a barrier.  He as cited for driving too fast for conditions and was later fired. Was he prepared to be a professional taxi driver?  Clearly not despite all the new but completely inadequate training.  There must be a recognition from both sides of the taxi equation that it is a new taxi day and as the sun shines so too must we reflect a new outlook and attitude.  It is essential that this occurs!

And now nearly two hours later the sun remains.  More later if required.



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