Don Roppolo, director of arborist training within the Davey Institute, talks about training arborists, training for safety and his Davey career.
In this episode we cover:
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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each week, our expert arborists share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists' favorite trees, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at the Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer.
Today, we're joined by Don Roppolo. He's the Director of Arborist Training for the Davey Tree Expert Company, based in Southeast Wisconsin. We are going to talk all about training, Don. Why is this the job for you? You're in charge of training the trainers, right?
Don Roppolo: Correct. I guess I fell in love with helping other people. It's part of my personality—I enjoy helping other people, and started out doing field training and enjoyed having the opportunity to share what other people have shared with me, and just progressed from there. This industry is an industry that's based on field training, and that's how most people have come up through it. I've had that fortunate opportunity to work with some really good people that have shared a lot of good information with me. I feel fortunate to be able to do that with others.
Doug: During the podcast, I've interviewed countless arborists who have told me that same exact thing, where they're starting on the ground, moving brush and such, and then working their way up into the trees. Of course, first, learning to do it—watching and then being trained. Talk a little bit, just a little bit, about-- it's pretty obvious, I think, the importance of training if you're going to be working with chainsaws, working in trees. I don't think there's much more that could be more important than trained to do this job safely and the right way.
Don: Yes, it's the basis of it. We're, by the nature of what we do, we're climbing trees, working with sharp tools at height. There's a lot of inherent risk in what we do. It's important to be able to understand, identify, and mitigate as much of that risk as we can. At the base of that is training and understanding, one, how to identify the risk that's there. Then two, from that, what we can do to manage and mitigate that risk. Just like getting into our vehicle on a daily basis, there's a lot of risk in driving a vehicle, but there's a lot of things that we do to identify and manage and mitigate that risk that we're exposed to. Training's at the heart of it, identifying that and learning what to do about it once you have identified it.
Doug: Is there a manual that goes through all the different training or how does it work? How do you teach it and how do you know who to teach and that sort of thing?
Don: Sure. There's a program that's laid out from when a person starts with us with no experience, from wherever they may have come from in the past and progresses through their career. It just starts out with the basic stuff and builds through that career progression. That's, for us, as trainers, what we use as our guidelines is our company career development program.
Those steps are outlined from the first day of learning how to use the personal protective equipment that we have, how to operate the equipment that we use, starting on the basics of chainsaws and chippers and where to be on a job site and what to do on the job site to people that have been with us for several years and doing much more complicated tasks. It walks through that progression and people know then what their next steps are, what they need to do, what they need to work on to get to that next step.
The trainer helps in those steps along the way. As they work with a person on a crew, they can ask them, where are you at within your career development progression, and let's see your book and let's see what you need to work on. They can identify the things that make sense for them for their next steps in their progression in their career.
Doug: I have to assume that the training evolves. I don't know. How often does it evolve? I'm sure it has to change as equipment changes, as techniques change, right?
Don: Yes, absolutely. There's always new training that's related to advancements in techniques and in advancements in equipment. You think about the vehicles that we drove to work 20 years ago are very different than what we're driving today, and what it takes to work on those and operate those. It's the same thing for us, technology keeps advancing, which is great. With that, we need to adjust because, with every tool and technique that we have, there's advantages and limitations, and understanding those advantages and limitations is key to having somebody being able to safely use those tools and techniques and be able to be proficient and safe with those.
Constantly adjusting to those, and that's something that we do as new tools and techniques come on to the market or into the profession, we have a committee that reviews those and is constantly updating our training policies and what we approve to use so that we're using proper equipment and people that are trained to properly use that equipment. We're not asking or allowing people to use things or whether that's equipment or techniques that they haven't learned how to use or aren't competent with.
Doug: Tell me a little bit more about your job, about setting all this up, setting up the training, and a little bit about your day.
Don: Sure. I started out with a relatively small group back in 2018. The first trainer was hired in 2017, and in 2018, there was four more hired. Over the last several years, we've hired more and more trainers, continuing to build the program out. I started working with them at that point with the goal of helping people in the field on a daily basis. That was the starting point of what I'm doing now.
With that, working with each of those trainers, helping develop their skills so that they can better work with people that they're interacting with on a daily basis and help them improve from wherever it is that they're at in their career development.
Doug: As far as training goes, how did it end up that you were working, like, training for trees? Do you have a connection with trees or more of a connection with training or a connection with both?
Don: Over time, both. I stumbled upon this career, to be honest. I didn't know that arboriculture or tree care was even a profession, and I stumbled upon it in college when I took a forestry class that introduced the idea of arboriculture and urban forestry and found myself, that summer, in a job where I learned how to climb trees. I remember being up in a tree, thinking to myself, "I can't believe somebody is paying me to climb trees. I would do this for free. I used to do this as a kid and loved it. Now somebody is paying me to do it. It's amazing."
I started there with the climbing side of things. Then, as I progressed in my career and people shared more with me, I started getting to the point where I had something to share with others and learned to enjoy that. I tend to be a patient person, which is a really important part of training, being patient with people and meeting them where they're at, seeing where they're at.
Over time, I developed both of those, the tree side of things, the tree care side of things. I've always had an interest in the outdoors and trees were a natural fit for me. Then the fit with helping people is a fit with my personality as well. That's where the trees and the training blended together, based on my experiences in life.
Doug: Do you have to be a certain type of person to be able to climb a tree? Are there certain people that should not be climbing a tree? I'm talking about me. I can't stand heights. When my Davey guys come here and I stand 100 yards away looking up there, I get the heebie-jeebies.
Don: Sure. Yes, it's like anything. Yes, there's all kinds of careers in the world and it's finding the right fit for you. It's an outdoor career. You have to either enjoy the outdoors or at least be willing to deal with the outdoors because the trees are outside. When the weather is great, it's great. When the weather is cold or hot, you got to deal with that. I would say one of the biggest things is just being somebody that enjoys the outdoors.
I wouldn't say that height is necessarily a limitation. To be honest, I would describe myself as afraid of heights, and that's what I figured I'd find out in my first internship when I was going to learn how to climb was, well, this is a short-term commitment and if I don't like it, a couple months, I'll be done with it. What I learned was, with the aid of equipment, I could safely be in an environment that humans really aren't designed to be in. It's similar to, I look at it like scuba diving.
Again, with the aid of equipment, we can safely be in an environment that we're not designed to be in. Fear of heights is something that is, in my opinion, is good, because it gives you a respect for what you're doing and makes you stop and double-check what you're doing and do the right thing. To me, the biggest components are having a good attitude and somebody that enjoys being outside.
Doug: That being outside, that note has been played probably in every interview I've done for the Talking Trees podcast is that love of the outdoors, but also with proper training-- I talk to arborists all the time, that they love to have that view from up there. Yes, they're up there to do a job, but there's also something about being up there and, when you're trained and you can do it safely, that's a pretty amazing thing, I think, when I hear those stories.
Don: Yes, absolutely. Ironically, just last week, I got a picture that one of the trainers texted to me, saying that we've got the greatest job, and it was a view. He works in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was a view looking out across the San Francisco Bay from a tree that he was in, and, just an amazing view. I oftentimes find myself thinking those same sort of things, being up in a tree, and that we're very fortunate that there's a very small portion of the population that has the opportunity to do what we do and to be up there safely and to be able to experience those things.
Every now and then, when you have a moment to think about what you're doing, you appreciate that. One of the other things I would take in is that we're climbing in and on a living organism, and you oftentimes forget about that because trees aren't like animals where they move from place to place. That is, obviously, they move in the wind, but don't really make much noise, and you forget that it's a living organism. Some of these things that we're climbing in and on are several hundred years old, and the things that they've seen over time, it's really amazing having that opportunity to be up in them and have that as a career where we're getting paid to do that.
Doug: If you don't mind, talk a little bit about training for safety with chainsaws, because I see consumers all the time that aren't using the right safety gear that you guys-- it's essential to have. What are the essentials for using a chainsaw just for your regular guy?
Don: Sure, absolutely. Yes, a chainsaw is an amazingly useful tool, but it can also be very dangerous. You could say the same thing about a car. There's a lot of people that are injured and killed in cars every day, but how do we go about using it, and what are the safety measures that we use to do so? With chainsaw use, there's what we refer to as personal protective equipment, so the equipment that we use to protect ourselves.
At the very minimum, we wear leg protection that has-- it's not cut-proof, but there's different types, but they all work on a similar principle of jamming the saw up. It cuts into the material and stops the saw from turning within a split second, typically. It's another layer of defense—gloves, hard hats, hearing protection, some of those basic things. Ultimately, the biggest thing is that training and understanding what to do and how to do it.
We can have this equipment, but that equipment, to me, I look at as a last line of defense. If our behaviors have led us to a point where we're in a situation where we're exposed to a chainsaw coming in contact with our leg, that's where the leg protection comes into play. Ideally, we're not getting to that spot just like I wear a seat belt in my car just in case I get into an accident, it's there to help reduce the severity of the accident or the injury that I might encounter.
Starting out with that basis of understanding, the personal protective equipment, but then how to use the saw. There's certain parts of the saw that are more dangerous than others, depending on how we use them. Understanding where those are at, when to use them, and how to properly use them, where unfortunately, you could go out to a store this afternoon and pick up a chainsaw and not know any of that stuff, start using it, and get yourself in a very bad spot. The training is key to that. With a little bit of training, you can understand some of those key components.
Doug: Certainly, as a training expert, as somebody who deals with professionals all the time, teaching them how to do this the right way, just tell a regular person, "Do not climb a tree with a chainsaw, okay?"
Don: Exactly. Yes, that both of those have enough inherent risk in them with just being up in a tree, being at height, and using a chainsaw, both are having a lot of inherent risk. Then, not knowing anything about either one is a really bad combination.
Doug: Don, I say this a lot as I watch my Davey team work through my property, really just how amazed I am at what they do. When you look up there, 30 feet up there, whether it's in a bucket or in the tree itself, and making those cuts in a way where nothing is, when they leave, it looks the same as it did before they were there, except the tree's gone. That's pretty amazing, I think.
Don: Yes, it takes a lot. Oftentimes, we forget about that. When we do a good job, that's the feeling that the client should have, is not really knowing that we were there. Whether we remove the tree, and then we do a good job of cleanup, or if we prune the tree properly, oftentimes, unless there's a ton of deadwood in the tree, it doesn't look significantly different. Typically, that's a sign that we've done a good job.
The tree shouldn't have the top third of it removed all at once. Typically, that's not what we want to do. Doing the right thing, oftentimes, is you walk away, and it really doesn't look a whole lot different. You've done the work, and you've cleaned it up right. That's all part of the training, is what to do safely and properly up in the tree. Then once you get down, what do you do with all the debris that you created? How do you manage that safely, and get that taken care of?
Doug: Don, it's rather unique for a company to be so invested in training, right?
Don: Absolutely. I feel very fortunate to work at Davey, and be in the position that I'm in, to be able to work with a group of trainers across the US, working with people in our industry. There's not really a whole lot of other companies that do this, that have people that are dedicated to training on a daily basis. That's their full-time job, helping people progress in their careers, and helping them have a safe, productive career. Again, I feel honored and really fortunate to have the opportunity to work in a role like that, where we've got people helping people on a daily basis.
Doug: Don, before I let you go, just talk a little bit about what you hope that the people that you're training to train, what do they get out of being trained properly? What do you want them to get out of that?
Don: To me, one of the biggest things is being able to treat people well, and make a safe training atmosphere. An opportunity for people to feel comfortable connecting with them, because if we're not able to connect with somebody, not able to create a safe atmosphere for training, it's difficult for people to be able to learn and be trained. That's one of the biggest things, is to be able to be patient, and create that atmosphere where people want to learn, and they're excited to learn, and help them in their journey, wherever they're at in that journey.
If there's somebody that's new and just starting, getting them excited about doing the things the right way, is to me one of the biggest things that we can do in training, is getting people excited about doing the right thing, and that all goes into creating a fun and safe training atmosphere.
Doug: I think that's got to be a great feeling, to be in charge of something like training, and knowing that you're keeping thousands of people safe. Thanks very much for your time today, and for the information. I really learned a lot, and I'm sure listeners are going to enjoy it too.
Don: Absolutely. Thanks for the opportunity.
Doug: Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Do me a favor, subscribe to the podcast so you'll never miss an episode. Hey, do you have an idea for the show, or some feedback? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, that's P-O-D-C-A-S-T-S @ D-A-V-E-Y .com. As always, we'd like to remind you, on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.
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