Control Room Technology
People not associated with the Recovery Industry will have little idea just how 'technologically advanced' the average recovery Control Room is and even less idea of the skulduggery and intrigue that went on behind the scenes to make it so. Very little has been revealed of this until now, but the webmaster (and some good friends) were at the centre of events. So now some 25 years on, it is perhaps time to record them here.
Background: In the early eighties there were a vast number of 'work providers', nearly all of whom dictated the rate for the job. They were all more or less based on a 'call out' and 'price per mile'. However, many varied that rate after a certain time and even had different rates for things like being inside the North Circular Road (or other 'special' locations). There were bonuses if special equipment was used and commercial vehicles were divided into increasing weight bands. Finally all the rates were for completely different amounts and often calculated differently!
The net result was that jobs were often priced by a tired driver, who would guess at the mileage and forget all about any bonus or 'other' charges. Also invoicing was very much a poor second, to actually doing the job. One well known midlands recovery operator, was rumoured to to visit National Breakdown each Christmas, with a bottle of whisky in one hand and a carrier bag full of his years paper invoices in the other!
One of the people involved with this website today is Andy Lambert,
who was then MD of The National Rescue
Group and was
at the heart of everything that happened then. Most of what you read here
has been related and confirmed by him. He was like many others frustrated by the
extra work all the different job rates caused and the lack of standard
procedure. It was clear
to him that this sort of thing was easy for a computer to do and so he
started to learn how to write computer programs in basic (the then
only non machine code language, commonly available).
Above is the actual article that appeared in AVRO News at the beginning of 1986
Several companies did end up using some parts of the program, but it soon became obvious that most did not have a clue how to harness this technology for their own benefit. Around that time the program was shown to Ian Lane a gifted computer programmer, who readily agreed to modify the program and develop it for use with the emerging MS-DOS system. The results of this collaboration was the BRCP Breakdown & Recovery Control Package Mk1
In a very short time it became clear this was not something that the pair
could produce in their spare time, so Ian lane left his employment at GEC
Avionics and along with Andy's brother
Geoff, they formed Motor Trade Software, or as it would soon
universally be known MTS. Their offices were at first in the North
wing of the world famous Brooklands Control Tower and Flying Club (shown
below as it was in the eights).
Today's recovery operators will have little idea what it was like invoicing work back then. Everything was hand written on pieces of paper longhand and then manually priced, using a costing 'lookup' table which was different for each club.
Many clubs also supplied you with a special form to fill out, that in some cases could also become your invoice. There was of course no uniformity and each club had to have, a different layout to their competitors.
If by chance that form got lost or destroyed while out doing the job, there was a good chance it would be forgotten and no invoice would be produced i.e.- you would do the job for free!
The BRCP program was a good start and allowed many recovery operators to see how it could help them. For example when a job came in you immediately hit the 'F1 Key' and raised a new job while you were still taking the details. That way each new job would get an entry and importantly, exist until it was actually invoiced.
An image used in one of the many MTS adverts of the time (reproduced right) actually 'rung true' to many smaller operators, who saw themselves just like the guy in the image, doing everything himself, with no help or sympathy from his customers, or staff.
Once you had finished on the phone you could quickly key the details into the program. Then Job sheets could be printed and given to the driver and when he came back, all you needed to know was what miles he had done (so you could add a couple for luck!).
The computer would then price the job at the correct rate. It had all the club rates built in, plus you could add your own for your existing customer. It also automatically added the correct, VAT where it was needed.
If the job time was entered correctly then the right rate and call out were added for the relevant customer. Of course Changing customer caused the rate to be 'recalculated', allowing for the first time operators to easily compare job profitability, by customer rate.
If it was a night time job, then next day when the boss got in, all he needed to do was check the job (amending any low mileage or missed bonus payments) and then hit F4 to print out an invoice. Although this sound normal today, back then it was a revolution and saved the user many hours a week.
The control's screen showing
all outstanding recovery jobs and the details of one of those jobs
Building on the success of BRCP the team thought about vehicle storage and most importantly, workshop repairs and looked to include these areas in a new package. The result was the now famous MS-DOS Garage Manager launched in 1992. Above you can see some of the straightforward screens.
Garage Manager was an instant success and some 1200 copies were sold to UK Recovery Operators and Garages, over the following ten years.
Sadly however the world was changing and 'Microsoft Windows' was becoming the operating system supplied with new computers, even though for job logging operations, DOS was quicker and easier to learn. In the end MTS bowed to the inevitable our Stuart Johnson (with a little assistance from Ian Lane) developed a Windows version of Garage Manager. Stuart of course did not have the same Recovery background and also had to stick within the ridged 'Windows Framework'. This meant that some operators found the program a little harder to learn than the DOS one. However there is no doubt in the webmaster's mind that the way Stuart steered the program was the right way in the end.
The windows version did have some advantages, for example it allowed pictures to be taken of the casualty, showing any damage before recovery was undertaken. These could be stored with the vehicles registration number, in case of any customer / club queries.
In later versions of the program, it was possible to link to a map program, to show the location of the casualty as well as the recovery vehicle on way to it. Perhaps most importantly it become easier to link several computers together (networking)
Of course MTS were the first to develop a software package just for the the recovery industry, but they would not have it all to themselves. Two years later in 1988 Sensible Computing launched their VTAR package that would over time become VTRAK. The following year System Workshops launched Recover IT and at the 1989 AVRO Show, Recovery Management Systems launched A Recovery Package and DMW launched ROSCO. The following year Yezerski Roper offered their RIMS System.
Since that time there have been a
handful of others who produced software for the recovery industry, but the
only ones that really survived in the industry for more that a few months,
are MTS and Simple Computing, both of whom are still active today,
although both have changed their names to Motor Trade Technologies and
Laser Byte respectively.
MTS Flex their muscles
He suggested a much better approach would be to clear down and invoice the jobs electronically. The AA said they could not afford to develop such an idea and so MTS said they would develop it for free, as long as "it would be an 'open standard' that other motoring organisations could also use as well".
This was the first time that MTS had used their virtually monopoly (as suppliers to the industry) to make a motoring organisation do something that was alien to them (but more would follow). Fortunately for the industry the AA said they could see no 'commercial conflict' with such an agreement and the first part of a standard was born.
The following year MTS started to experiment with 'data over Radio' (dispatching jobs to a recovery vehicle). The testing went well, but results at an affordable price to the user, were almost imposable to achieve.
RAM Mobile Data
Before we look at Turbo Dispatch's
very painful and at times dangerous birth, we must step back a few years
and understand a few
things, that may explain why some people tried to murder it, while it was
still in the cot!.
At the other end of the process the AA were accepting completed jobs, once a week on a floppy disc and both National Breakdown (soon to become Green Flag) and Britannia, were talking about doing the same thing. Andy Lambert had had many years experience of running a control room at National Rescue and dreamed of a way of making life simpler for all. First of all however there had to be a common standard, or as always each club would want to do its own thing. Fortunately Andy know very well, that there were a few people at each of the major clubs who agreed with him.
So on a warm summers day at the end of June 1994 he invited some of them to a look around Brooklands Museum in Surrey. Now few men can resist the chance to play with 'Boys Toys' and afterwards, probably for the first time ever, The AA Britannia, Europ Assistance, Mondial, National Breakdown and The RAC shared a lunch and talked about finding a common standard. Colin Parlett represented the neutral IVR (Institute of Vehicle Recovery)
The Representatives present
at the first 'Standards Committee' meeting at Brooklands in June 1994
Out of that and other subsequent meetings, the protocol for Turbo Dispatch was conceived. However, let there be no doubt whatsoever that just one person - MTS's Ian Lane had the genius and the forethought, to develop something that would prove to be so durable, yet remain flexible.
Of course the group also tried to tackle other areas, like producing a universal set of Fault Codes and Outcome Codes that could be adopted by all the clubs (with some success). A common job clearance / customer satisfaction form that could be adopted by all the clubs (with total success) and common ID cards (with no success whatsoever!)
Sadly the RAC were not completely honest with the group (something that would repeat itself again over the following years) and continued to develop an alternative data transmission they called EDI. This was launched in the same year and caused the other clubs to question if it was possible for the industry to work together for the common good. For a short while everyone stopped talking.
Modern Recovery Operators may not find this behaviour by the RAC too surprising, but what was even more disturbing is that both the AA and National Breakdown, would also shortly try and kill Turbo Dispatch.
The main advantage was of course speed, but accuracy was a close second. Also, when the job arrived, the controller did not have to answer it straight away (like a phone call), he could finish what he was doing first. When the system finally was up and running, what was typically taking 10 to 20 minutes from end to end, was soon being done on average in less than 5 minutes.
There were automatic safeguards built in with acknowledgments being sent back up the line, and if the chain was broken for any reason, the previous person was notified and could then take appropriate action. There were visual as well as audio warnings generated. You can hear some of them by clicking on the links Job Arrival Not dealt with Job) This second one got more frequent until it was continuous and had to be dealt with (and only a few customers knew, that the irritating voice, was that of Andy Lambert's wife Christine).
That was part one of the plan and most of that was implemented. This was to be part two of the plan.
Beyond these easily achievable targets was the possibility of much more, like the ability to meet up with other company's vehicles and exchange loads, to keep the driver within his operational hours. That 'Holy Grail' return loads would also be easy to organise, increasing everyone efficiency and profitability.
Now clearly the one weakness in all
this, was the protocol had been written largely by MTS and would only work with
their software. MTS therefore decided to make it an 'open protocol' and
relinquished all title to it. It was put into the public domain so anyone
of their rivals could use it in their own software. It was agreed (at MTS
suggestion) that the source code to the Turbo Dispatch program (TD.EXE) be
given to all the motoring organisations. In the event only Green Flag
and the RAC accepted the offer.
Brief Technical Details
This is an example of part of one of
It is very easy to see date, time of first call, contact and vehicle details etc (of course a real message would contain much more information, on many more lines). When the message arrived on your computer it would show up in your 'in box' and all any software developer need to do to show the results in his program, was to read it and place the relevant line in the relevant box - IT WAS THAT SIMPLE!
By using plan text files and putting them in in and out box, meant that anyone's software could be made to work with the message. Also although at that time RAM was the best medium for data transmission, alternatives like the Internet GPRS and TETRA, would all at some point be used.
During 1995 both Delta Rescue and National Breakdown (by now Green Flag) purchased suitable radio equipment and started to conduct their own tests, with those garage that were already using the system to send messages to their recovery vehicles. The very first genuine breakdown job was sent from Green Flag to Southbank Recovery, using Turbo Dispatch, at the start of December 1995.
The trouble makers were usually to be found way above the people MTS and the IVR were working with and the trouble they caused was largely born out of a total ignorance of how the recovery industry worked, along with no understanding that another commercial concerns like MTS, could do something for their customers just because they liked and admired them. To these people the concept of being open, was totally alien and they genuinely thought that everyone who was open, must have a hidden agenda.
As stated above the first live jobs were being sent as early as the winter of 1995, however in early 1996 Green Flag stopped development work. Various reasons were given at the time, but it emerged that work had been stopped on the instructions of a Green Flag Director. MTS were never able to substantiate the rumours, but it was also strongly suggested that this person could see the huge potential of controlling communications in the recovery industry. It was even suggested that he owned (or had some contact with) a software house in Bristol, who were busily writing their own alternative solution.
The rumours caused a lot of concern amongst MTS's customers who could see that one Motoring Organisation controlling job dispatch, would be a real problem. As a result MTS happily gave an undertaken to the Standards Group, AVRO and the IVR, that it would never sell the company or the copyright to the source codes, to a motoring organisation. Of course what was missed by most people, was that it was now an open standard anyway and so 'everyone' and 'no one' owned it!
It is not clear what changed things in 1996 (although the author and a few others have a good idea), but shortly before the AVRO annual Recovery Show Green Flag resumed transmitting work over Turbo Dispatch and MTS were told by Brian Hagen that they wanted to do something really big at the show.
This they achieved by setting up a Green Flag complete control room in a room next to MTS, where jobs could be fed into the Green Flag system and transmitted next door to a typical garage control room MTS had set up. The job could then be redirected to a number of Turbo Dispatch equipped vehicles, on various vehicle builders stands outside. When operators saw how blisteringly fast this was all achieved, many signed up to the concept there and then. Perhaps more importantly they also went off and visited the other clubs, to ask them when they were going to go 'live with RAM'.
There was also a lot of bad feeling directed towards the RAC as they had by now got their rival EDI system working, and it clearly was not as flexible as Turbo Dispatch. More importantly it was only for the RAC, where as if you purchased a unit to work with Green Flag jobs, when another club went live, it would immediately also work for them.
The RAC were seen as trying to create a world where a large recovery operator would be forced to have a terminal or computer, for each club. Even worse he would still have to key all that job information into his recovery program, as their EDI, only displayed the information and did not 'talk' to anyone's software.
Possibly as a result of the interest at the show, Britannia and Europe Assistance both promised to be live with the system by the following year and in fact were (all be it only just!). However the most interested of all the clubs were the AA, who left the show with plans to start testing Turbo Dispatch just as it was. They were even invited by Green Flag up to their Control Room, to see how they had implemented it (surely another first for the industry).
In Sept 1996 the AA started trials with their London Control Centre and after 24hours the AA's Bill Diegutis stated that "we have to have this as it will revolutionise the way we do work" Unfortunately Bill had not reckoned with the "grown ups" that run the AA.
Unlike the earlier events with Green Flag which were just rumours, what happened with the AA is largely documented and MTS unfortunately were in a front row seat. This is what happened
The alternative RAC system (called EDI) used the Paknet Data Network. This in turn was part of Vodata, who are owned by Vodafone. It seems that Paknet were not pleased that an opportunity to spread EDI across the whole industry was being defeated by the MTS-RAM partnership. Sadly for the recovery industry at this time the parent company Vodafone were rolling out a phone / data system for the AA and brought a large amount of pressure to bear on the AA. What they wanted the AA to do, was to involve them in what was going on.
So after a very a long winter in which the AA seemed to be doing nothing to integrate with Turbo Dispatch, MTS were invited to meet with Paknet. Paknet made it very clear to MTS that they were determined to become the largest supplier of 'Data and other Communications' to the vehicle recovery industry
At the meeting in Newbury, 'the facts' were explained to MTS using expressions like "We are big, you are little, so get in line or watch out". MTS's representatives ended up walking out of the meeting and vowed from that day on, to work with straightforward guys at RAM Data. RAM themselves through their long time account manager and friend Laurie Bright, offered MTS unlimited support and protection should they need it. Laurie's enthusiasm was only second to MTS determination, to "make this thing work"
It soon became clear to all the motoring organisation (via feed back from their representatives on the standards committee), that MTS would resist to the end, anything but a common standard for all the industry. The AA stopped trying to change things and got on with producing an interface to the Turbo Dispatch standard. It is commonly accepted this was because the AA's Evan Anderson could see all the advantages of a common system, that so many others could not. By that winter, The AA, Delta Rescue, Europ Assistance and Green Flag were all live and sending large volumes of their work over the air.
Then to every ones amazement, in March 1998 the AA's Bill Diegutis announced that a higher rate would be paid to agents using Turbo Dispatch and this would be worth up to 15% extra! Sadly this was to be the only example of the motoring organisations passing back in to the industry, some of the large amounts of money Turbo Dispatch was saving them.
In fairness to the clubs however some recovery operators did not help things, by being so vocal about how much money it was saving them as well. The committee representatives for both Britannia and Green Flag, did try hard to get an increase in rates, to off set the initial cost of Turbo, but both were defeated by the organisations Accountants, who wanted to keep the savings for themselves!
Before we deal with the last and
most disturbing part of the saga, a small and historic event that
took place in August 1997 should be recorded. Many of Queens Motors'
recovery vehicles were equipped with an Astir Data Terminal and GPS unit
(pictured below). One such vehicle was out at a breakdown, with the driver out of
the vehicle working. on a
customer's car. Suddenly he heard his vehicle being driven away. The police were contacted and
using 'Vehicle Location' information supplied by Queen's Control room, the
vehicle was stopped just 15 minutes later.
MTS / Astir MDT which was the first Terminal to be used on any scale, by
By 1999 the future was looking good for Turbo Dispatch all the major motoring organisation were committed to it and appeared to want it as a 'Standard' throughout the industry. Thereby allowing recovery operators to have one installation to receive work from everyone. Three Police Forces were conducting test and Thames Valley Police were starting to dispatch work over it.
Cooperation between Laser Byte and MTS meant that VTRAK users were able to use their program with Turbo Dispatch and even people who had written their own garage programs like Lanterns and Autokeys had linked their software to it, with MTS help.
The main people involved with it (including the Club Representatives on the committee, the Police Forces and the industry's software house) were all convinced that Turbo Dispatch was helping everyone and this spirit of cooperation could only get better, with the many new features soon being implemented.
Lets cripple this cosy little
The first signs of this was when a suggestion was raised by the RAC at a Turbo Standards meeting, that the existing group be disbanded and then restarted. However, restarted without the involvement of RAM Data (the medium by which all the jobs were 100% successfully being carried), MTS (the brains and driving force behind the standard) and the smaller Motoring Organisations. The motion was not surprisingly seconded by the AA.
Many present were not happy with the idea, but we were told it would speed things up and make the whole decision making process much easier. If that was not enough, it was also suggested that they would open the standard up to include others, who had not contributed in anyway to the standard before. This it was argued could make the communications cost even cheaper.
Now that last statement should be put in perspective. All the development and management cost of the standard and the users software were borne by RAM and MTS. Therefore the only ongoing cost to the user, was for the data they actually used. The motoring organisations were of course big enough users of airtime, to be on a RAM's flat rate of £300 (three hundred pounds) a month. So if a club sent a thousand jobs a day over it (most were doing much more) the total cost per job, was around one penny!
Ian lane recalls "many of us left that meeting thinking this will go one of two ways. Either things will improve and all the things recovery operators want, will now get implemented, or commercial interest will push JUST the things the clubs want and the recovery operator will (as usual) go without".
As the recovery industry knows today, it was the latter and if you doubt this, consider the following:
It was Spring of 1999 when the new and renamed 'Recovery Industry Communications Standard Group' first met and one of the points of discussion was the news that Unipart with the aid of their partner Mobile Radio, were about to launch 'Vehicle Recovery Manager' into the trade. Over the next few months the product was pushed very hard, but did not get any takers. Unipart quickly saw the 'writing on the wall' and severed their links with their partner Mobile Radio. Then during the summer Vodafone / Vodata with the add of their 'new partner' Mobile Radio! - launched 'Vehicle Recovery Manager' (Déjà vu anyone?)
It would seem that Unipart had told Mobile Radio that they were getting nowhere and that anyway Unipart wanted to concentrate on their core business of supplying workshops. What happened next (according to the rumours at the time) was that Bill Leech of Mobile Radio was approached by someone from the RAC (rumoured to be Max Murdoch Operation Development Manager), who allegedly told him they would find him a big customer for his product, if he would share his software with Vodafone.
Now it is impossible to say if that last rumour was true, but there is no denying that the first (and as it happens the only) Recovery Company to take the program was Eriksons Motoring Services, who would soon be run by Mark Keen when he left his 'senior management post' at the RAC! The most telling indication that the RAC were backing just this solution was however, that once again the RAC's integration to Turbo Dispatch was put back, while the Mobile Radio solution was rushed forward and fully integrated.
Many influential people in the industry were concerned that something that could benefit them so much, was being put in danger of failure, for selfish commercial reasons. In the end the RAC were forced to release a statement, which included this line:
"It has been and remains the RAC's intention to develop a link from our CARS system to Turbo Dispatch - as soon as our other system development commitments allow"
In the end the industry unanimously rejected the Mobile Radio / Vodafone offering and when this happened Eriksons' Mark Keen had to go 'cap in hand' as he put it, to MTS so they could get Turbo Dispatch. He did however have the courage to later write to MTS, to express his gratitude to them for the fair way they had helped him, despite all the skulduggery that had take place.
The old Standards Group started to meet again and a small amount of cautious cooperation could once more be seen. Other related topics were discussed, such as the use of the standard in other business, like the growing home services markets being developed by some clubs at the time. These group meetings would continue up until the retirement of Ian Lane and Andy Lambert at the end of 2006. After this the idea of 'group' meetings, would somehow lose of its momentum and be replaced by occasional 'individual meetings' with the software providers.
The following year the RAC (after some six years of being 'involved' in the Turbo Dispatch standard), finally went live with it and joined all the other major motoring clubs. For the recovery operators this meant they could receive the majority of their work instantly, straight into whatever software they decide to use and with just one radio modem and one lot of airtime charges.
It also meant that at
peak times a good controller could run a medium sized recovery operation
on his own. Hours
of answering telephones and writing jobs on paper had gone forever and
for the public, 'time to scene' had been greatly reduced. Recovery
Operators could take on and handle ever large amounts of work, allowing
many to remain profitable for a little longer, in times of of degreasing
last ever Standards meeting at Heathrow on the 12th April 2006
Sadly however, the industry would never again see those levels of cooperation, standardisation and the sharing of sensitive information, between the majority of Motoring Organisations. Turbo Dispatch had done what its backers had wanted it to do and revolutionised the industry. Just like Garage Manager and BRCP had done to a lesser degree in their time. Sadly those lessons were never learned by the 'givers of work' and what could have benefited everyone so much, just helped prolong the days of reckoning, that are happen now.
Turbo Dispatch so easily could have done much more than this, had it not been for the interference of some people, the majority of whom had no place in the industry and who in the main, have long since left it. Those that remain could carry on the work, only time will tell if they do.