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City considers big tow change

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

If approved later this month, the Austin Police Department will have a new way to manage some of the 30,000-odd tows it handles every year.

Detective Robert Loosier presented the plan for a new managed towing program to the Public Safety Commission last week. The program, which will handle the tows needed as a result of collisions in the city, will go to City Council on Jan. 29.

Loosier said that the APD expects the new system will be more efficient and streamline communications. He explained the convoluted current system to commissioners.

“When, for example, an officer needs a tow truck in the field, he calls a dispatcher,” said Loosier. “The dispatcher receives the call. She sends a typed message to Teletype. Teletype receives the message and pulls up our wrecker data program, physically calls the wrecker company, asks if they are available — yes or no — hangs the phone up, types a message back to dispatch, then dispatch has to get the officer on scene. Lots of points of contact.

“With wrecker management, we can streamline that to one phone call to one single company,” Loosier continued.

Loosier presented a list of challenges with the current system, which was adapted in 2006. That system has tow trucks waiting on a rotation list, and allows for 45-minute response times. During rush hour, designated tow trucks are stationed in six zones around the city, which reduces the response time to a maximum of 20 minutes.

That process, said Loosier, is labor-intensive and ties up officers on tow-related calls longer than the managed towing program will. He also pointed out that the current system does not have accurate data collection, which hinders improvements and delays responses.

The new program will track response times through GPS software. Loosier said it will also be more efficient, especially in terms of communication. One company will manage the 40-plus wrecker operators that the APD uses and make the decision about which operator is the quickest to dispatch, without requiring the on-scene officer to make numerous phone calls.

Not everyone is excited about the new program. Richard Pope spoke on behalf of the Austin Towing Associations. He said the towing community was, at first, “vehemently opposed” to a third-party dispatch like the one currently proposed. In the three months since the plan was introduced, it has moved to the community having a “slightly positive” take on the plan, but residents still have concerns.

Pope said that their primary concern was about the prospect of “wreck-chasing” that could ensue if a strictly GPS-based posting of collisions was adopted.

“Irrational, erratic, aggressive driving is a danger to the citizens,” said Pope. “Today it’s programmed. Wreck-chasing is not allowed. You show up on the scene when you are asked to show up, and if you are not asked to, you can be cited.”

Pope said that they also wanted assurances that all of the towers in Austin will continue to be allowed to participate in the program, instead of a dispatch picking “their favorite friends.”

Finally, Pope was worried that the new system could take more money out of tow operators’ pockets, which he said has happened in other cities.

“I think the speaker’s point is well-taken. We don’t want a free-for-all out there under a new system,” said Commissioner Kent Anschutz, who was assured by members of the police department that a “free-for-all” could be avoided through the wording of the contract.

According to Loosier, wrecker management programs cost from $20 to $25 per vehicle for the owner of the car being towed. He said there would not be an additional cost to the city for the new program.

The program will also cut another cost to the city by eliminating the need for a contract with an impound lot and traffic incident management system, as well as save officer time.

Currently, impounds are separate from collision tows in the department and are based on a contract with Southside Wrecker that expired in October 2014. That contract is currently extended pending the outcome of this proposal.

Photo by Ultegra at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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