Veteran C-Tran dispatchers keep eyes on the road

Their ears also play role in ensuring a smooth commute

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photo“I have fun at work every day,” said C-Tran dispatcher Viola Vernon.

(/The Columbian)

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It’s just after 4 p.m., and a rainy Portland-area commute is getting started. So is the chatter at C-Tran’s dispatch center.

In a single room at the agency’s Vancouver headquarters, dispatchers monitor several radio channels at once, watch computer screens mapping C-Tran buses’ locations, communicate with drivers about traffic conditions and mechanical problems and answer phones. Above it all, a small stereo — playing The Beatles and other old standards on this day — adds to the well-orchestrated cacophony.

An anonymous voice comes over the radio to check in, one of about 90 C-Tran drivers out on the roads. He doesn’t identify himself. He doesn’t need to.

Leon Muffett answers back without hesitation.

“Thanks, Cliff.”

Muffett was one of two dispatch supervisors coordinating the afternoon commute last week, along with Viola Vernon. The two have worked together for the past 14 years, since Muffett started the dispatch job after a brief stint as a C-Tran driver. Vernon, one of C-Tran’s longest-tenured employees, started in 1981, working for what was then known as Vancouver Transit.

Five people make up C-Tran’s core dispatch supervisor team. But Vernon and Muffett — two of the most experienced — are known to some around the office as “The A Team.”

Over time, the two have developed a connection and chemistry that makes them function like a fine-tuned machine.

“It just makes all the difference in the world,” Muffett said. “Most of the time we spend together is very active, very dynamic.”

Their experience shows. On a recent afternoon, Vernon and Muffett tossed around bus vehicle numbers and city block numbers as second-nature, seemingly speaking a different language. Each knew what the other was doing, constantly aware of conditions on the ground as they coordinated the daily traffic dance.

The effort was split between two basic vantage points. Vernon monitored the freeway commute, staying in touch with the buses making trips

to and from downtown Portland. Muffett kept tabs on the mostly in-town routes around Clark County. Both jobs require near-constant attention, sometimes shuffling vehicles to keep routes on track.

In downtown Portland, for example, C-Tran usually keeps two or more “tripper” buses waiting there on standby during the afternoon commute. Those vehicles are called to jump into a route if another bus gets too bogged down in traffic. That tends to happen more in the latter part of the afternoon commute, Vernon said.

Mechanical problems can also shake things up. On a recent afternoon, a driver on the No. 7 Battle Ground route called dispatch to report a faulty wheelchair lift. Muffett sent out another bus to catch up with it and step in so the ailing bus could be sent back to C-Tran headquarters for repairs.

Often, those small fixes can be done in minutes to get buses back out on the roads the same day, said Dan Gufrey, C-Tran manager of base operations. Meanwhile, dispatch supervisors are noting those incidents and keeping track of arrival times.

“Really, the key to what they do is multi-tasking,” Gufrey said.

Despite everything going on around them, Vernon and Muffett maintain an easy demeanor on the job. They joke with each other, and seemingly anyone who walks in the room. Laughing, Vernon offered this praise of Gufrey, who himself was a dispatch supervisor before taking his current job:

“He’s an excellent boss,” Vernon said, grinning, “because I helped train him.”

Of course, it’s not all fun and games in the C-Tran dispatch center. Dispatchers know they have to be ready for anything — particularly in the event of an accident, or wild weather.

“This can turn to chaos in a heartbeat,” Vernon said. “And on a snow day, it often does.”

Vernon has seen just about everything in her time on the job, and noted how much has changed since she started in the early 1980s. Then, the primary form of communication was little more than a simple two-way radio — well before GPS trackers, emails, electronic traffic alerts and the rest of the digital tidal wave that engulfs today’s landscape.

One thing hasn’t changed, she said: her enjoyment of the job. Even with so many people coming and going over the years, Vernon said she’s always looked forward to coming into the office.

“I have fun at work every day,” Vernon said.

Said Muffett: “There really aren’t two identical days.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.