Meadville Tribune

State News

June 1, 2014

Tow truckers hope to put brakes on dispatch system

HARRISBURG — Some tow truck operators are boycotting a computerized dispatch system put in place by state police, complaining that it’s confusing and leads to longer response times than when troopers and dispatchers manage a call.

State police, fed up with whiling away time at crash scenes, have implemented the automated dispatch in northwest Pennsylvania and plan to expand it statewide.

State police Lt. Col. George Bivens said the system, operated by California-based Auto Return, frees troopers from handling relationships with towing companies — a chore that has little to do with law enforcement.

Disputes with towing companies have cost state police as much as $1 million a year in litigation, Bivens told a hearing of the House Judiciary and Veterans and Emergency Preparedness committees recently. Conflicts typically arise over attempts to drop slow-responding tow companies or those failing to meet police standards.

But Curt Hovis, of Hovis Auto Wreckers in Emlenton, said the automated dispatch isn’t as safe or efficient as speaking with a live dispatcher.

When summoned to an accident on the interstate, Hovis said he often must figure out how to get around an accident scene by using turnarounds in the median. It’s helpful to speak directly to a trooper to determine the best route, he said.

He’s not the only tow operator who thinks the roll-out of the new dispatch system was muddled.

Hayden’s Garage in Meadville has towed for state police for decades and signed up under the new system, Rose Hayden said. The garage was passed over on nearby calls, then asked to travel outside its area in other cases.

Frustrated, the business withdrew from the program, Hayden said.

State police blame the towing companies’ resistance to a lack of communication when the automated dispatch was launched.

The system began in December under a deal that charges motorists who need a $35 administration fee — $22.50 of which goes to Auto Return, the rest to the tow company — in addition to the cost of the tow, itself.

The system began in four counties served by State Police Troop E. But it only covers half that area — Crawford and Erie counties — because towing companies in Warren and Venango counties are boycotting, said Hovis, who has been the spokesman of tow companies opposed to the system.

The system has since expanded into the State Police Troop D region — Mercer, Lawrence, Beaver, Butler and Armstrong counties. Bivens said police made greater efforts there to inform tow companies what to expect.

Tow companies aren’t the only ones who’ve complained.

Jamestown Fire Chief Mike Cadman said his firefighters have twice waited more than two hours for a tow truck to arrive at a crash scene since the new system launched. He’s told firefighters to return to the station if state police are at a scene and when a car is off the road or not a hazard.

“Troopers get paid so they can sit and babysit the vehicles,” Cadman said in a written statement. “Before this new system we never waited more than 30 minutes for a tow truck.”

Auto Return Chief Executive Officer John Wicker said his company’s system uses the same logistics technology as employed by many private industries. His company handles towing in a half-dozen cities, he told lawmakers, though this is the first time it’s implemented the service across an entire state.

Wicker said the system’s initial stumbles have been aggravated by a “misinformation” campaign that prompted tow operators to refuse to work with his company.

In more than 1,000 calls made to the new system, tow trucks have arrived at accident scenes within 35 minutes three-quarters of the time, said state police spokeswoman Maria Finn. Tow trucks took more than an hour to arrive in fewer than 5 percent of cases.

Finn said it’s difficult to compare that to prior times because state police didn’t have a good system of tracking them.

Democratic state Rep. Chris Sainato of Lawrence County said concerns about the system are “a big deal.” He is the minority chairman of the House Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

Republican state Rep. Dick Stevenson of Mercer County said one alternative would be to ask 911 dispatchers to deal with tow companies.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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