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While hiring qualified drivers should be a top priority for every senior housing operator, it's a process that takes patience and diligence. Experts agree that there's often more to finding that perfect driver than meets the eye.
“Transportation is a very important function for communities, and it requires the same degree of planning and attention to detail as other resident services,” said Glenn Brichacek, Ph.D., president and CEO of The Admiral at the Lake, a continuing care retirement community slated to open in downtown Chicago next year. “No question, when it comes to drivers, there's a lot to consider. If you're focused on doing what's best for your [residents] then the vehicles you choose and the people you have driving them can't be an afterthought.”
Tune into training
Whether a community hires its own drivers or outsources the transportation function to a third-party operator, it's essential that whoever gets behind the wheel has the right credentials.
It should go without saying that drivers must have a valid driver's license, not to mention the proper qualifications to operate the desired vehicle. Anyone expected to operate a vehicle with a passenger capacity of 16 or more (counting the driver) needs a commercial driver's license. Although commercial driver's license requirements vary from state to state, most involve appearing for the Department of Transportation physical exam, passing a general knowledge and road driving test, submitting to and passing a drug screening test, and producing a valid driver's license issued by that state.
Many employers provide training and help new employees obtain their CDL, although smaller communities may opt for smaller vehicles that can be operated with a standard driver's license. Or they might hire an outside transportation provider if resident outings require high-capacity buses.
“Sometimes, it can be more cost-effective to contract the service with a fleet contract operator. They offer varying levels of service, up to and including providing the vehicle, the driver, and the maintenance, or any combination thereof,” noted Sheldon Walle, president of ElDorado National.
Of course, possessing the proper license is just one hurdle drivers must clear. Experts agree that to be considered for the job, applicants also must pass a background check (no felonies or misdemeanors allowed) and have a spotless — or near spotless — driving record.
“We run a background check on all of our drivers and we look for drivers with very few points, and, preferably, none, on their driving record,” said Gail Ranville, administrator for Sanctuary at Saint Mary's, a Trinity Senior Living Community in Grand Rapids, MI. All drivers also must obtain a chauffeur's license, and undergo a defensive driving course — the latter of which came at the recommendation of Sanctuary's insurance company.
Knowing nuts and bolts
The facility's drivers must also receive prior training from maintenance staff to ensure that they're comfortable operating the vehicle — either the 12-passenger van or the smaller “sprinter” van with a rear bench seat, front passenger seat and space for two wheelchairs — according to Karen McGrath, Sanctuary at Saint Mary's activities director. In addition to employing dedicated drivers, who are typically responsible for transporting residents to appointments, several other individuals, including McGrath, are qualified to operate the vehicles for offsite resident activities and on an as-needed basis.
“Aside from me, we have CNAs and maintenance staff who have met the driver qualifications and can operate the vans,” she said.
The Admiral at the Lake's Brichacek, too, has set stringent driver requirements. Only those with a “completely clean” driving record for the past five years are able to transport residents — either in a 14-passenger shuttle or Town Car — and substitute drivers are held to the same standards.
One serious no-no that savvy, safety-driven administrators uphold is not allowing untrained or otherwise unqualified staff members to use their own vehicles to transport residents in a pinch. It's a strict policy adopted by both The Admiral at the Lake and Sanctuary at Saint Mary's.
“A marketing manager or other staff member, for example, may just want to be helpful, but we make it clear that under no circumstances are they to transport residents,” Brichacek stressed. “Our insurance carrier told us that staff would not be covered under our liability plan, and our employees understand that.”
Past employment experience also can tip providers off to a good — or potentially bad — driver applicant.
“With transportation, reliability is, of course, very important. If you can find out how many call-offs an applicant had with their last job, that can help you determine whether you'll be able to count on them,” said Steve Simmonds, owner of Transport U Inc., a transportation service provider that operates a fleet of more than 60 vehicles across western Pennsylvania and the tri-state region.
Aside from being proficient on the rules of the road, drivers also must be keenly aware of the specific needs of the residents who board their vehicles.
“That means either having the ability to meet those needs if or when required, or making certain [help is] available to them through another individual or resource,” explained Walle.
Targeted training and proactive planning are key to bridging those gaps. Every Transport U driver applicant is assessed for empathy and his or her ability to meet the needs of frail, elderly passengers, who often include physically and cognitively challenged seniors.
“We look for a compassionate person — someone who will treat their passengers in the same way that they would treat their own loved ones. When you find those people, they're usually the ones who will stay with you for the long haul,” said Simmonds, adding that Transport U still has original drivers on the payroll from when the company began five years ago.
Every driver, regardless of past experience, receives roughly one week of hands-on training from an experienced manager before being allowed to head out on the road unsupervised.
“All of our drivers need to be familiar with our policies and procedures, including how to transport and secure those with wheelchairs,” Simmonds said. “Just because they did it one way doesn't mean that's going to be the same way we do it here.”
Transport U's drivers must also be CPR-certified — a safety requirement also in place at The Admiral at the Lake and Sanctuary at Saint Mary's.
“Actually, it's going to be our goal to have every employee [regardless of position] CPR-certified,” said Brichacek. Dementia training also is required, as is incontinence training to ensure that drivers know what to expect and are sensitive to resident needs.
Preparedness and understanding does not mean drivers should provide personal care, however. As Brichacek explained, it should be made crystal clear that a driver's job is, in fact, to drive.
“That's an important job in and of itself and it deserves the driver's full and undivided attention. The goal is to have a good, safe and conscientious driver who is equipped to respond appropriately to various situations that may arise,” he said.
Proactively outlining emergency scenarios and then creating a clear and appropriate policy to address them is a wise move, he said.
“If an emergency situation occurs, you don't want your drivers guessing about how they should respond. If a resident is having a medical emergency, for example, a policy should be in place for the driver to pull over and immediately call 911,” he explained.
And if a driver is at a shopping center and a resident doesn't return to the vehicle with the rest of the group, there should be a specific protocol in place, such as having the driver remain in the vehicle with the other passengers and immediately phoning the community or police department so they can come and do a search.
Allowing — and even encouraging — other staff members or approved volunteers to travel with residents also can ensure safer, more stress-free outings. While these accompanying passengers should never be allowed to drive, they can serve as another valuable set of eyes and help tend to basic resident needs during transport.
If a resident with particularly challenging health needs will be participating in an offsite activity, Brichacek requires family members to hire a qualified caregiver to escort them.
“We want to encourage social activities for all residents, but safety has to be our top priority,” he explained.