By Tim Hahn
ERIE, Pa. —Pennsylvania State Police are using a California company to clear away vehicles involved in accidents in some parts of the Erie region.
The company, AutoReturn, is calling on local tow operators like Mark Dylewski to do the heavy lifting.
Dylewski's Pine Avenue-based business, Tom Dylewski Services Inc., signed up to participate in a pilot project launched in early December that has farmed out towing dispatch services to AutoReturn. The program is being tested by state police Troop E, which includes Erie and Crawford counties, and will soon be tested by Troop D, which includes Mercer and surrounding counties.
It was a natural move, said Dylewski, 56, whose business has been around for 50 years and has towed for state police for the past 25 years.
"When they offered the program, we complied because that's business for us, and it's what we do," he said.
But not everyone is on board.
Some tow operators in the Erie region who previously contracted with the state police did not sign up for the pilot program.
And a group of towers in 12 counties, including Crawford and Venango, have spoken out against the program and signed a petition stating that they would not contract with AutoReturn or respond to calls because of a variety of concerns, including their lack of involvement in helping to develop the pilot program. They also called on state legislators to look into the matter.
State Rep. Richard Stevenson, of Grove City, R-8th Dist., said the many issues raised by tow operators involve public safety.
"The towers I have spoken to are not opposed to the idea of state police trying to find another way to dispatch. However, they would like to be more involved in the discussion and bring their ideas to the table in terms of how that might work more effectively," he said.
"To that end, we have met with the state police to open a dialogue on this issue, and the state police have been receptive to that process, and we will be moving forward."
The idea of farming out tow dispatch services was under review by members of the state police Bureau of Research and
Development for several years before the agency put out a public solicitation on its Web page, then chose AutoReturn as the program to contract with, said Trooper Adam Reed, public information officer for the state police.
"What we were looking for was a company that was going to simplify the towing process," he said.
AutoReturn's clients include Baltimore County, Md., and the cities of San Francisco and San Diego, according to information on its website.
Before the pilot program, state troopers at the scene of an accident would contact a dispatcher who would then call a towing company. State police would keep logs of what towing companies were contacted and which company responded to the scene, "and we would have to act as a go-between in a lot of cases" for those who had their vehicles towed, Reed said.
State police would also have to develop a list of approved tow operators and regularly check their facilities to make sure they were appropriate to use, he said.
Under the pilot program, a trooper at the scene contacts a dispatcher who then notifies AutoReturn electronically or by phone, and the company handles the dispatching, Reed said.
"It lessens the workload on our troopers and dispatchers because (AutoReturn) keeps all of the towing information and handles disputes with the towing agencies that service the individuals," he said.
Reed said people whose vehicles are to be towed can still call their own towing company. The exception is if a vehicle is blocking a roadway or is in a dangerous spot, and there is a concern about the amount of time it could take to remove the vehicle, he said.
One notable feature of the pilot program is that tow operators are to charge a $35 administration fee on top of the normal tow fee, with $22.50 going to AutoReturn. That's not sitting well with some area tow operators.
"The bottom line is I refuse to pay for a service they needed from me. State police and AutoReturn don't own any trucks or hold any liability," said Billy Henry, the owner of Borderline Towing and Recovery and Repairs in Conneautville.
Henry used to tow for state police but did not sign up to participate in the pilot program.
"In this economy, and in the areas we cover, people don't have the money to give someone ($35) for a phone call," he said.
Dave Alexander, of Dave's Autow in Waterford Township, who is participating in the pilot program, said he doesn't have a problem with the fee. The only problem he does have is that the pilot program includes at least one towing company from Ohio that is responding to calls in Pennsylvania, Alexander said.
Curt Hovis, of Hovis Auto Wrecking Inc. in Emlenton, said he and others are upset that state police first came to area tow operators about the plan in late November and wanted them to sign up within days of the program's implementation, yet they never talked to 911 operators, fire departments and emergency management officials to explain how the program would work.
"A lot of things don't measure up with an automated system," said Hovis, who was one of the tow operators who signed the petition stating that he would not contract with AutoReturn. "They couldn't answer questions about multiple calls, multiple (incidents). We're geographically different. We just decided that until you can meet with us and discuss this, we're not going to tow for you."
Hovis added that, in his opinion, the "best dispatch system in the world" is already in place through the 911 centers, but no one talked to them about possibly handling towing dispatch services for the state police.
"We trust them to send an ambulance to our house, fire companies to our house, police for law enforcement issues. They dispatch probably more tow trucks than the state police," he said.
State Rep. Brad Roae, of East Mead Township, R-6th Dist., was one of 19 state legislators who on Jan. 10 signed a letter sent to state police Commissioner Frank Noonan, informing him of the problems raised by some towing companies about the pilot program and asking him to suspend it until the issues raised could be addressed.
Roae claimed the high costs to taxpayers for the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System will result in the contracting out of more state functions. He said functions contracted out should involve Pennsylvania companies, not companies in California.
Dave Alexander, of Dave's Autow, said the program is beneficial in keeping towing rates in check, and that AutoReturn's use of GPS technology in selecting the closest tow operator to a call eliminates any discrepancies.
As for those in need of a tow, Alexander said he doesn't believe they'll have any problem with the system being tested.
Mark Dylewski said the pilot project hasn't changed his business. The amount of tows he has responded to recently are normal for this time of year, given the weather.
"I think it's going pretty well, other than the fact that there's a third party. Instead of getting a call from the desk at the state police barracks, I get an alert on my smart phone. There's an administrative fee we have to pass on and a little more administrative work than before, but all in all I think it's working fine."
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