FSP to the Rescue! Riding Along with the Metro Freeway Service Patrol
Stranded on the freeway? Not to worry. The FSP is on its way.
It’s 5:28 a.m., still dark and quiet. I’m sitting in my car on Monterey Avenue just off Huntington Drive in Monrovia, a wide side street nestled between a Marriott and a Toys R Us. I’m waiting for the Metro Freeway Service Patrol (FSP) – not because I need help, but because I’m going to ride along with them this morning. This street is the staging location for Beat 11, which runs for about seven and a half miles along the Foothill Freeway (I-210) between Pasadena and Monrovia.
The Freeway Service Patrol provides free roadside assistance to stranded motorists. Jointly managed by Caltrans, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), and the California Highway Patrol (CHP), FSP is the largest program of its kind in the nation, operating on over 400 miles of Los Angeles County freeways. FSP has assisted almost four million motorists since its inception in 1991, and currently averages about 30,000 assists each month. Funding is provided by Proposition C, the voter-approved half-cent Los Angeles County sales tax.
Caltrans’ role in the program is data processing and analysis. “We take the data that’s collected out in the field by the drivers, analyze it, and turn it into reports that help improve the program,” said Transportation Engineer Kathy Montenegro, who heads up the FSP program at Caltrans. “Any data analysis the program needs – such as volume or speed data – we handle that.”
For example, FSP aims for a response time of 10 minutes or less. FSP drivers – called “operators” – record the time (and other details) of assists on a “Motorist Assist Form.” These forms are collected, compiled and then analyzed by Caltrans. If the average response time on a particular beat is, say, 12 minutes, more trucks might be added or the beat might be reconfigured so operators can respond more quickly.
Currently, 70 percent of motorists wait less than five minutes, and the morning of my ride-along, I don’t wait long either. FSP Operator Allen Duncan soon drives up in his tow truck, followed by operators Ricardo Ramirez and Daniel Lboy, the beat leader. Duncan, Ramirez and Lboy work for Hadley Tow, one of about two dozen towing companies Metro contracts with to provide FSP services. The three-man team will spend the next four hours patrolling their swath of I-210, looking for motorists who need help. When the morning commute winds down, they’ll take a few hours off and come back to do it again during the evening rush hour.
After inspecting the three trucks, the crew gasses up at a nearby Chevron. I’m riding shotgun in Lboy’s white Nissan Titan, one of 145 FSP trucks that patrol the freeways. The truck bed is brimming with equipment and supplies for dealing with all manner of freeway breakdowns: orange cones, water, fuel, tire irons, an air compressor, wrenches, rope, duct tape, absorbents for cleaning up spills, wire, jacks, and other tools of the trade. A trained mechanic, Lboy knows how to use them all with an expert’s ease. He’s one of those unflappable types who exude a calm, cool competence. If you get a flat in the #1 lane of I-210 with traffic whizzing by you at 70 miles per hour, Lboy is the kind of guy you want to pull up behind you with a jack.
As we pull onto the freeway headed east, Lboy turns on the dispatch radio in the cab and begins scanning the freeway – not just the road immediately in front of us, but the shoulders, the ramps, the westbound lanes and the traffic a mile ahead. He’s looking for disabled cars, dead animals, stuff that’s fallen off the back of trucks, even people walking on the shoulder (yes, it happens). He’s also looking for break lights, a slow-moving lane, anything that might signal trouble. “You have to be able to read the traffic,” Lboy says, scrutinizing the freeway as if he were reading tea leaves. “You get pretty good at it after a while.”
The idea behind FSP is that by quickly clearing stalled cars, which cause more than 50 percent of congestion, traffic delays are reduced. Additionally, getting cars back on the road or towing them to a safe location reduces the chance of further accidents and bottlenecks caused by impatient drivers and gawkers. Reducing stop-and-go traffic caused by stalled cars also cuts air-polluting emissions.
When Lboy spots a stalled red Ford Mustang on the Lake Avenue off-ramp, he deftly pulls up behind it, checks his rear view, dons his green safety vest, and approaches the driver. She’s out of gas. Lboy explains that he’s with the Freeway Service Patrol and can give her a free gallon of gas to get her back on the road. The motorist is at once relieved, grateful and surprised. She’s never heard of FSP, and thanks him for the help. Along with the gas, Lboy gives her an FSP brochure and a voluntary survey. Back in the cab, he fills out a Motorist Assist Form, providing the raw data that Caltrans will later analyze, and pulls back onto the freeway.
In addition to providing gas, FSP operators can change flats, jump batteries, tape hoses, fill radiators, and tow cars with serious mechanical problems. In the event of an accident, they can summon CHP. Lboy says he might handle as few as three assists on a holiday with little traffic or as many as 15 during a busy shift. He might encounter nothing more serious than a flat tire, or find himself first on the scene of a fatal accident. “That’s one thing I don’t like about the job – the accidents when people get really hurt,” he says.
But mostly, Lboy enjoys his job and finds it rewarding. “I like being able to help people, and I like being active. I couldn’t sit in a cubicle all day,” he says. “And when someone says thank you, it feels good. You know you’ve made a difference.”
When the ride-along ends, Lboy drops me off on Monterey Avenue where I parked my car. He puts the Titan in gear and heads back to the freeway, where he’ll drive back and forth on his seven and a half miles of pavement, looking for someone who needs help.