May 28, 2007 7:50 AM, EDT

Technology Speeds Load-Planning Tasks

By Susan L. Hodges, Special to Transport Topics
This story appears in the May 28 print edition of Transport Topics.
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Eight years ago, a busy day for load planner Rick Demitruk of Express-1 Expedited Solutions Inc. meant dispatching 20 to 30 loads and shepherding them through to delivery. Now, Demitruk might talk with 20 drivers in a single hour while dispatching and monitoring at least one-fourth of the 225 loads his company handles during a typical 24-hour period.
And, oddly enough, he likes his job better than ever.
“I think technology has made my job easier,” said this veteran driver-turned-dispatcher.
Dispatchers for Express-1, Buchanan, Mich., are equipped with a Web-based application that includes a fully integrated Global Positioning System set-up.
Before Express-1 acquired the system, Demitruk had to remember the location of each truck on the road and where and when it would empty. He also had to memorize the names and base locations of about 40 drivers.
Now, he can “ping” (seek by computer signal) a truck and in two minutes or less obtain its exact location and load status. He can talk to drivers via cellphone and even dispatch loads with a text message.
“It’s a little like Wall Street,” he said. “There are four of us here working loads, and our screens refresh every time a load is booked, and pop-up windows show when a load is available. We yell out who’s covering what, since we try to keep them moving constantly.”
So productive have good dispatchers become that Demitruk said four of them can now handle as many drivers as once required 16 dispatchers. But top-notch dispatching professionals are scarce, and the ones who can keep their heads while juggling driver schedules, customer needs and a plethora of road conditions often qualify for bonuses in addition to company recognition.
John McKenna, a regional operations manager for New England Motor Freight, said that the best dispatchers in trucking possess three important qualities: They’re cool under pressure, have an outstanding ability to communicate detailed information and are excellent planners.
NEMF, a regional less-than-truckload and expedited carrier, is part of the Shevell Group, Elizabeth, N.J., which ranks No. 57 on the Transport Topics 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.
“You can have really good operations people who are unable to work as dispatchers, because they can’t control their emotions,” McKenna said.
Dispatcher Mike McCready might be described as the essence of cool. When NEMF’s Portland, Maine, terminal was closed for a precautionary investigation of a small liquid discharge, McCready and his team made adjustments to distant areas and were still able to dispatch more than 200 shipments and make the majority of the deliveries.
“We could have decided to unload the trucks and start again the next day,” McCready said, “but through teamwork with my supervisors and our drivers, we completed 75% of our loads in about five hours.”
So confident in McCready is terminal manager Steve Aims that, when Aims hears from a new customer who needs a 2,000-pound pickup on short notice, “I go ahead and tell them we can do it,” Aims said, “because I know Mike will figure something out.”
As a daytime dispatcher, McCready each morning is handed a load list from which he creates an action plan. But his job is more difficult than it would be if Maine had a full build-out of cellular base stations.
Because cells are sparse north of Augusta (in central Maine), McCready must use a virtual Whitney dispatch board to assign loads. The same technology deficit also prevents him from receiving real-time information on delivery times and customer signatures.
Even so, he and his team make every pickup and delivery, every day. McKenna said, “Mike’s tenacity to communicate with drivers and work with customers has led to almost flawless execution from Portland.”
Taking into consideration the pressures drivers face makes such success all the more noteworthy. In at least one segment of trucking — household moving — the rising cost of fuel has combined with high loading-labor costs and growing discounts to slash owner-operators’ pay by up to $15,000 annually.
“A lot of companies that move household goods are losing drivers right now,” said John Leppell, a dispatcher with Star Moving Co., a Seattle-based affiliate of United Van Lines. It’s no wonder: A driver who has taken a pay cut and is still on the road for days at a time “can go drive a dump truck for the same money and be home every night,” Leppell explained.
Yet, a dispatcher who is compassionate as well as capable can make the difference between a driver who quits and one who not only stays on but also becomes committed to the company’s customers.
“I like to learn their personalities and their schedule preferences,” Leppell said. “I have some who’ll run 365 days a year and others who like to be home long enough to get the ‘honey-do’ list done and have the dog stop biting them.”
Leppell, whose tools include a trailer-tracking system, will network with other United Van Lines agents to find additional loads for drivers who want them or to have loads on the road picked up if a driver has an emergency.
“You try to build a reputation with other agents so they know if they have a problem, you’ll help them out, too,” Leppell said.
He takes the same approach with drivers, always striving to be honest and personable.
“You’re building relationships, so it’s important to always tell the truth,” he added. That approach can mean telling drivers when return loads will not be available or that only shorthauls are available for the next several days.
“I can look on our screen to see what tonnage is available and where, and [if drivers are in the dispatching office] I’ll show them the screens, too,” he explained.
On the other hand, Leppell and other good dispatchers become creative during slow periods, calling their counterparts around the country when necessary to try to find work for their drivers.
But as Express-1 dispatcher Gina McFalls noted, not every truck or driver is appropriate for every available load.
“You have to pay attention to the size of the load booked,” McFalls said. Some trucks may be too small for larger loads, and some drivers may not have enough legal hours to complete the assignment.
And because not all drivers call in with their hours, McFalls must check their schedules to learn how long they have already driven. Federal law limits a driver to 11 hours on the road and 14 hours total in service in a 24-hour period.
Once you find a driver available to take an assignment, though, he or she may have to be cajoled into taking it. Some dislike going to Chicago because of the numerous tolls or to Detroit because of frequent highway construction. And most drivers try to steer clear of short loads, because pay is by the mile.
But, “if you’re upbeat and honest, you can get drivers to do just about anything — as long as it’s legal,” McFalls said. “Once they know you’re watching out for them and trying to be fair, they’ll take a load they might otherwise turn down.”
Along with Demitruk, McFalls credits the tools Express-1 has given its dispatchers to do their jobs faster and better. “At the click of a mouse, you can get anything you want about any load,” she said. “We can even search out other trucks that don’t drive for us, if we don’t have one available, and maybe partner with someone else.”
A status-planning feature in the Global Positioning System setup
his company uses also allows dispatchers to enter notes about a driver’s planned events so that, at a glance, McFalls or other dispatchers know if a certain driver is available.
Such information can be especially important during deer-hunting season, said Steve Fether, a dispatcher with petroleum carrier Kenan Advantage Group: “We’ve got guys who’ll work Christmas before they’ll work the first day of deer hunting.”
Kenan Advantage Group, Canton, Ohio, ranks No. 46 on the TT 100 for-hire list.
Companies that work 24/7 demand a lot of their drivers and nearly as much of their dispatchers. Although Fether usually works five days on and two days off, he said he has to be flexible, because “you never know what those hours will be.”
He remembers 9/11, when his office shut down for 72 hours straight. By the time everyone returned to work, the gasoline shortage had risen to near panic levels. Fether worked more than 12 hours without a break, guiding truckers to stations that had not run out of gasoline.
In some cases, he said, these stations had such long waiting lines that the fuel trucks themselves had to wait to deliver their loads.
“But in the end, the job got done, as it so often does — by committed drivers and an outstanding dispatcher,” Fether said.