Safe Highways on Facebook Safe Highways on twitter

Headlights On . . .

The use of tow trucks allows for quicker response and clearing of vehicles—and the faster we clear the vehicle, the safer it is for everyone.

Headlights On . . . Nina RohlichNina Rohlich

Company: Metropolitan Transportation Commission Service Authority for Freeways and Expressways (MTC SAFE)
Department: Highway and Arterial Operations
Position/Title: Freeway Service Patrol Program Coordinator/Project Manager

Please describe your early aspirations/career goals that led to your current role as Project Manager for the San Francisco Bay Area Freeway Service Patrol (FSP).

As somewhat of a newcomer to the transportation field, I was looking for a position that would give me hands-on experience in transportation operations as well as broaden my experience in the field.  This role had the best mix of it all – transportation planning, contract management, project management, and working with partner agencies and local businesses.

Is there a connection between East Asian Languages and Literatures, your area of undergraduate study and transportation?

Yes, my love of transportation systems came from my experience living and working in Japan.  I’ve always marveled at how efficient and effective the public transportation is there—from the subways, intercity train lines, and the shinkansen (bullet train).  Even the expressways (though I haven’t had that much experience driving there) had impressive electronic signage and traveler information.  My first hand experience there led me to pursue further studies and a career in transportation management.

How has your Masters Degree in Transportation prepared you for your current role and responsibilities?

The Masters degree program from the Mineta Transportation Institute gave me exposure to a broad range of transportation issues.  What was great about the program was that most of my fellow classmates were already transportation professionals with different backgrounds and disciplines, including people from Caltrans, private transportation consulting companies, public transportation, regional agency workers, etc.  An important part of my FSP role is to work in cooperation and collaboration with partner agencies, so it was helpful to have “partnered” on an academic level with other transportation professionals in the graduate program first.

How has your previous work in the transportation field influenced the Bay Area’s Freeway Service Patrol?

I want to mention first that our program is managed by a partnership of MTC SAFE, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP), with the local tow operators representing the core of the program. Our program requires maintaining strong relationships with our partners, since we are all invested in the success of the program. Through my previous experience with the 511 regional traveler information program, I had the opportunity to work with both local transit agencies and the public.  As the regional agency, the key to success on that project was getting buy-in from our stakeholders, which depended on us working in collaboration as partners. This experience helped influence my approach to always work to strengthen relationships with our program partners.

Given your prior experience in ITS, why do you think the Safety Service Patrol Program is considered an ITS program and how does it compare with other incident management programs?

I’d say that many of the goals of SSPs are the same as ITS—safety & mobility, while fitting within the framework of freeway and incident management.  SSPs are also a critical part of the response in incident management, often the first to arrive at the scene of a vehicle collision.  Since FSP is charged with roving the freeways, our job is also to detect and report accidents in addition to clearing the obstructions.  Over the past year, we’ve had regional workshops bringing those involved in responding to incidents together to discuss incident management issues (  The Bay Area FSP and other local towing companies have always been key participants in incident management.

What services does the Freeway Service Patrol provide on San Francisco’s roadways?

The purpose of the FSP program is to provide for the rapid removal of disabled vehicles and those involved in minor accidents from the freeway.  Our FSP vehicle operators/drivers provide “quick fix” services, e.g., furnishing one gallon of gasoline, changing flat tires, providing a “jump” start, taping or repairing cooling system hoses, refilling radiators or similar minor repairs.  If we aren’t able to repair the vehicle quickly, it is towed to a CHP designated drop site location where the motorist can request further assistance.  All FSP services are provided free of charge to motorists at the time of service.  Our FSP operators are also responsible for clearing the freeway of abandoned automobiles, motorcycles, small trucks and small debris that can cause accidents and congestion.

The Bay Area’s Freeway Service Patrol is composed of a fleet of tow trucks that are privately contracted with multiple towing companies. What role did the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Service Authority for Freeways and Expressways (MTC SAFE) play in the choice to utilize tow trucks throughout the fleet in place of box trucks or Ford F350’s for instance?

The FSP program has always been comprised primarily of tow trucks with a few pickup trucks and flatbed trucks added on certain “beats” (freeway patrol segments).  We look at the mix of vehicles during each procurement, taking beat characteristics into account (eg. shoulder width), and make any necessary changes to improve program performance and services.  The use of tow trucks allows for quicker response and clearing of vehicles—and the faster we clear the vehicle, the safer it is for everyone.  Our drivers are trained to provide a “quick fix”, and if they aren’t able to repair the vehicle in 10 minutes, they will tow the vehicle to a safe location.  When you’re stranded on the side of freeway, every minute counts when it comes to safety.

What benefits do tow trucks offer as Freeway Service Patrol vehicles? Are there any disadvantages?

The percentage of tows that are required vary by beat, but on average 10% of our assists require a tow.  As I mentioned before, we see safety as the primary benefit to having tow trucks.  If we didn’t have tow trucks, we’d have to call for a rotational tow vehicle which typically takes a minimum of 45 minutes to arrive.  That amount of time could cause a severe backup of vehicles adding to congestion, contributing to the possibility of secondary accidents, and unnecessary exposure for the motorist.  The disadvantage is the extra cost of a tow truck, however, when you spread the cost over four years (we have 4-year contracts) we feel the extra cost is well worth the safety benefits.  We do try to keep our costs down by adding pickup trucks or flatbed trucks in place to tow trucks where it makes sense on our beats.

What equipment does the Bay Area’s Freeway Service Patrol carry with them?

There’s quite a long list of supplies and equipment for the FSP (pulled straight from our latest procurement document); CHP also conducts regular inspections to ensure our drivers have everything they need for the job.

Nina Rohlich and FSP Driver

Nina Rohlich (right) with FSP Driver William Davidson (left) who won the “Public Choice Award” this past year

When hiring new drivers what do you view as the most important qualities and skills required for a Freeway Service Patrol driver?

First of all, it goes without saying that our operators must be proficient in towing and equipment operations.  Second, the FSP program operates within stricter parameters than other towing operations and drivers must be able to adhere the rigorous guidelines and policies that are put in place for their own safety and motorist safety.  Furthermore, our drivers are the public face of the FSP program and are often required to calm and reassure motorists from very stressful situations and operate with a high degree of professionalism.  Drivers must be good communicators, be confident, and also have the knowledge and expertise to think on their feet and exercise sound judgment since they often encounter the unexpected in a dangerous environment.  When speaking with our drivers directly, it’s clear that what also motivates them is their passion for helping people.

What type of training do the Freeway Service Patrol drivers undergo?

In order to be a driver with the FSP program, all applicants must first pass background and driving record checks and a proficiency test to ensure the driver is familiar with towing operations.  Field supervision and training of FSP drivers is conducted by CHP.  Even before the proficiency test, our contractors must ensure that their drivers participate in FSP ride-alongs with experienced tow operators while performing FSP services for 8 hours.  Once they pass these screenings, including the proficiency exam, the drivers must successfully complete a rigorous three-day training course conducted by CHP to obtain FSP driver certification.  Sample topics from the training include:

1. Tow Truck Driver and Motorist Safety

2. Patrol Responsibilities

3. Vehicle Operation

4. Traffic Control and Scene Management

5. Communications Procedures

6. Demeanor and Courtesy

7. How to Handle Gratuities/Tips

8. How to Handle Unusual Situations

9. Sexual Harassment

Also, in order to maintain their certification, FSP drivers must attend a two hour refresher training class every quarter.

The Bay Area’s Freeway Service Patrol recently expanded its coverage area to include a new 20-mile segment along Interstate 280. What motivated this expansion? What considerations were taken to aid in the expansion of the patrol coverage area?

For years the Bay Area FSP program covered nearly every major freeway corridor in the nine counties with the exception of I-280 from SR 92 in San Mateo County to SR 85 in Santa Clara County.  We saw expansion into this area as the last major piece to complete our FSP network.  Though this section of I-280 does not have high levels of congestion, it is relatively isolated from businesses or other services, and represents a large gap in the availability of motorist aid services on the Bay Area freeway system.  Coverage of this area is primarily for motorist safety than for congestion relief.  It’s a beautiful stretch of land, but can be quite isolated and potentially risky for a stranded motorist.  It’s a three-year pilot project, so we’ll be looking carefully at the statistics and benefit-cost ratio for this beat to assess the value of long-term service on this corridor.

What other types of changes and improvements have been made to the Freeway Service Patrol over the years to ensure safety remains the first priority on California’s highways?

One feature we’ve recently added as an extension of the call box program (note: both the FSP and Call Box programs fall under the MTC SAFE motorist aid program), is 511 Freeway Aid (  Motorists stranded on the freeway in a non-emergency situation can call 511 from their cell phone and access the same services as a roadside call box.  The call answering center can then assist the motorist by dispatching FSP (if during FSP service hours), or call rotational tow to assist at cost when FSP is not running.

How do you envision the program will change over the next decade?

We are constantly looking at the structure of our program and adjusting it based on motorist needs and the Bay Area population in general.  It’s hard to say how the program will change over the next decade, however, we do tow procurements every two years for roughly half of our FSP beats, so we make any tweaks to the program during those planning stages.  Changes could include increasing or decreasing the number of trucks, adjusting the hours of operation—much of which is based on congestion data, assist data, and our benefit-cost model.  For example, we’re experience less congestion now due to the economy, so we’re looking at potentially decreasing service in some areas.

Please share an anecdote of a great assist or tale of a driver that went “above and beyond” the call of duty.

Our FSP drivers go above and beyond the call of duty in the eyes of the public on a regular basis.  Here is a sampling of comments from motorists:

“Bill was an absolute lifesaver today.  My car battery died on 880 S and the tow truck I called was still 45 minutes away when Bill pulled behind me.  Even after Bill learned that I called a tow truck, he went above expectations and suggested ways I could get off the shoulder of 880 faster and into a place that he could inspect my car.  He genuinely cared for my safety and was extremely helpful in solving my car issue by charging my battery so I could get to the car repair shop.  He is truly an exceptional employee and man and I’m very grateful that he was there to help.”

“Donald physically pushed my car from a risky position between an on ramp and 5pm 101 traffic flow…always making sure I was not exposed to the traffic. He took more of that exposure. Great guy, very personable, very helpful…was an excellent way to discover what FSP was. Thanks!!”

“Blown tire, dead cell phone, 2 babies, 98 degrees on freeway. I was so glad to see them. They were polite and efficient.”

What types of valuable information have you gained by collaborating with Safety Service Patrols in other states? Such as best practices, training guides, etc.

I haven’t had much of an opportunity to collaborate with SSPs in other states yet; most of our collaborating has been with other FSPs within California, and we’ve often shared our best practices and lessons learned from our procurement experiences.  For example, we recently changed our procurement from a traditional, negotiated process to a low-bid qualifications-based process based on input from various methods around the state.  I look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with other state SSPs!

What do you find the best vehicle for communication between states’ Safety Service Patrols (presentations, conferences, conference calls, newsletters, websites, etc.)?

I’m always in favor of in-person communication, such as a conference or workshop.  Given the reality of tight budgets and busy schedules, I’d say online newsletters and forums as well as webinars for presentations may be more practical.

What would you like other states with whom you have previously not communicated to know about the Bay Area’s Freeway Service Patrol?

We began the program in 1992, expanding from 13 trucks covering 49 miles to 79 trucks covering over 560 miles.  We’re committed to serving the Bay Area motorists, and we are proud of the positive effect we have on the safety, congestion, and productivity of our region.  We’re happy to share information about our programs, so feel free to check out our website or contact us (

What would you like to know about other state’s Safety Service Patrols?

What major challenges are you facing?  How do you justify expanding service in this economic environment?  If you have to cut back on your program, what factors do you look at when determining where/how to reduce service?

Back to Safe Highway Matters: Fall 2011

Leave a Comment