Proactive Training or the School of Hard Knocks?

Ive been told I’m abrupt and a little brash. I prefer the idea that I’m a realist; therefore, I call things like I see them.  This industry has no place for hurt feelings and bruised egos; we’re doing dangerous work out there, and if you don’t take that seriously, no one will take YOU seriously.  I’d much rather have a friend or advisor who is honest with me instead of someone blowing smoke up my exhaust pipe and telling me how good I am.

I hear and read about people in the towing industry continually complaining because they’re not treated with the same respect as other first responders.  I think there’s a good reason for that.  Most police officers attend daily status and training briefings at the beginning of each shift after going through an extensive academy and extended time with a field training officer. Most firefighters conduct some sort of training daily. EMS personnel are required to continually update and maintain medical certifications. If you want the same respect as the rest of first responders, then train yourselves like first responders train.

I’ll travel in time back to 1987 when I drove my first civilian tow unit.  The business owner showed me how to activate the manual PTO and move the winch levers on the sling truck, tossed me the keys after three minutes of playing with the levers, and sent me out on a police call to pull a rolled over Oldsmobile out of a ditch.  I tore that car up during that recovery.  The business owner didn’t care because he said it was already totaled, but that’s a whole different subject and article.  Suffice it to say that every vehicle and its every part has salvage value, and so you, the tow operator, shouldn’t tear a car to pieces because some parts are already damaged. It’s just not your call to make.

I was thrown the keys and told “good luck,” which is the exact manner that hundreds and thousands of us in the industry got our initial “training.”  In such a dangerous career field, and one in which damage to towed vehicles and to our equipment can produce staggering repair bills, a few minute’s worth of training or riding with another driver for a couple of hours just doesn’t cut it.  Ours is the only industry where organizations like OSHA don’t do stroke-inducing audits and will shut a business down for poor safety practices.  Perhaps OSHA should pay much more attention to our industry.

Many times, after the initial “training,” which isn’t very much, tow operators get no further training whatsoever. They immediately form bad habits and then reinforce those bad habits daily by doing the same thing in-and-out for years. In this case, just because you claim to have years of experience, it doesn’t count if you’re not doing it right.  I’ll give you a case in point-the red C7 Corvette on the flatbed in Oklahoma. The young driver secured the car half-sideways on the deck and used large J-hooks for the rear tiedown.  I applaud the idea that he used two chains on the rear, but he secured them with the points of the hooks up, meaning that if either one gets loose, it could fall off, and the left side was very loose.  Also, the biggest issue is using a J-hook at all on the incredibly expensive aluminum rear lower control arms on the Corvette.  You’ve all but guaranteed a stress fracture in those aluminum components, and they’re expensive.  OEM replacements are $1,220 per side.  Is a $3,000 claim with parts and labor worth it on a $100 tow?  This isn’t the 70s–we have straps available just for applications like that.  Once that car gets to a shop and the technician or shop manager sees that, what do you think they’d do?  They surely don’t want to assume the liability for damaged suspension components, so they’ll call the customer, all but guaranteeing a damage claim.

Training on and understanding towing and recovery methods pays off in large amounts of increased professionalism in our industry.  Professionalism pays off in better contracts and rates, stronger customer bases, and prolonged equipment life–all of which increases profitability. It’s a win/win for everyone.  You can train as a company every day. Every day, we have a little down time – turn it into some sort of training session, inside the shop during bad weather, outside in the sunshine during the summertime.  When you do these impromptu training sessions, document it.  Just use a Word document with a quick summary of what you covered, date and time, list the attendees, and get signatures.  Check out my article titled “This One Got to Me” about the incredible value of training documentation.

Back to the throwing the keys to someone and telling them “good luck.”  I’m not directly knocking the “school of hard knocks” manner of training.  Here’s how that works:  You have no training or knowledge in a specific area like how sensitive and low the oil pan is on a Freightliner Cascadia with the Detroit engine.  You use forks and grab the front axle, and away you go. Since you didn’t use tall enough forks, the truck bounced a bit, and you nailed the fragile oil drain plug and cracked the oil pan.  After the experience, you tell everyone you know about it and advise others to do a double-pick and use taller forks.  Wouldn’t it be better, though, to pass on that training nugget to people WITHOUT the obligatory hard lesson learned, an angry customer, a large damage claim, and embarrassment?

There’s a better way to train than the “school of hard knocks.”  You can bet that our brothers and sisters in police agencies, fire departments, and EMS units don’t halfway do their training with some 5-minute “here’s how you do it” unofficial class with no documentation.  THAT is the difference in our field and first responders.

If the tow industry doesn’t step up our voluntary training efforts, we will never be accepted as fellow first responders. The desire to be accepted as first responders is strong throughout the industry now, but it is my contention that 90% or more of the towers out there aren’t ready to play at the varsity level. So, if you want what other first responders have, then do what they do which is proactive and continual training; it can be less expensive than the bill from the school of hard knocks!