Fort Worth

Will Fort Worth's proposed plans to clear highway wrecks cause wrecks of their own?

In an effort to find a way to speed up the time wrecker companies respond to highway accidents, the Fort Worth Police Department may be looking to a technology company to run those dispatch operations.

But a group of local wrecker companies whose long-standing contracts with the Police Department are expiring in September fears the proposed method will itself wreak havoc.

The Police Department wants a company to take over the work of dispatching tow trucks to free up city dispatchers to handle other calls.

The department wants a vendor, such as AutoReturn in San Francisco, to handle all police-initiated tow calls. The vendors use GPS to find the tow trucks closest to an accident to respond.

Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald recently told the City Council that going to an outside company would create savings and efficiencies. In Texas, Austin and San Antonio are among cities that have gone to newer dispatching technologies.

“What this promotes is wreck-chasing,” said James Bennett Jr., owner of Beard's Towing in Fort Worth and vice president of the 22-member Fort Worth Area Towing Alliance. "If a call comes over, you’re going to have all these drivers listening to a scanner. As soon as they hear that call, they’re going to rush to get closest to the scene and then hope that ... they get the call.”

Currently, tow companies are dispatched on a rotating basis. Drivers are expected to be at the scene within 30 minutes, but they often arrive sooner.

Fort Worth's wrecker ordinance is largely unchanged since 1997, Fitzgerald said. The city needs to update the ordinance to reflect changes in state law as well, he said.

More than a year ago, the local tow truck companies got wind of the possible changes and at a June 2017 City Council meeting raised their concerns.

During the past several months, police have met with the tow companies, but it wasn't until earlier this month that Fitzgerald addressed the council on the issues. He's pushing the council to quickly adopt ordinance changes in order to get bid proposals out to vendors in May.

The council is expected to hear from Fitzgerald again May 8. Fitzgerald said the Fort Worth Area Towing Alliance will have the opportunity to bid on the contract as a vendor.

"This is not out of the realm of what other cities are doing," Fitzgerald said.

District 8 City Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray isn't happy with the suggested approach, saying the city should be doing everything it can to promote Fort Worth businesses, especially the mom-and-pops.

She fears some companies could be put out of business because they don't have the equipment to compete like the larger shops. The rotation provides a level playing field, she argued.

Five smaller tow truck companies are in her district and three of those companies might be hard hit, Gray said.

"I struggle with that," Gray said. "These are the people who live in our city, pay taxes in our city and vote in our city."

Bennett and others say the current system works just fine and going to a different model opens up the flood gates for more companies to come to Fort Worth. He said the Fort Worth companies already use GPS technology.

"I'm not a proponent of AutoReturn coming in and managing us," said Rhonda Hight, co-owner of Edd’s Towing, in business for more than two decades. "It's not fair to bring in someone now to make a set of rules for us. It's kind of a mess."

Sandra Baker: 817-390-7727, @SandraBakerFWST