FAIRFIELD — At 5:50 a.m. recently, Jeremy Hemingway parked his tow truck on the onramp to Interstate 80.
When the clock struck 6 a.m., he moved into traffic.
Right on time.
“No,” he said, with a smile, when asked if he was a morning person.
Hemingway, 37, works as a tow truck driver driving the white Freeway Service Patrol vehicles for Roadrunner Towing in Fairfield. His beat has him running loops from Abernathy Road to Lagoon Valley for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon – stopping to help motorists stranded on the side of the road, move obstructions from highway lanes or to assist at accident scenes by moving vehicles to the side of the road.
The Freeway Service Patrol is a joint effort among the California Highway Patrol, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the California Department of Transportation. Its goal is to keep the highways of California clear and moving steadily.
The program replicates one that was started in Los Angeles, said Stefanie Pow, the Freeway Service Program for Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The money for the program comes from a variety of sources, she said, such as Department of Motor Vehicle fees, federal grants and gas tax money.
It runs in all nine Bay Area counties, covering 550 freeway miles with 90 tow trucks – tow truck companies compete for the four-year contracts in a bid process. The focus is on heavily travelled corridors.
“We’re often the first responders to an accident . . . because we’re always out there,” Pow said.
Hemingway doesn’t sit and wait for calls – he’s constantly traversing his portion of Interstate 80. Up and back. Up and back. Searching for items on the roadway or people to help on the side of the road.
“When nothing is going on, it can get monotonous,” he said.
Recently his morning shift included a two-car accident on the eastbound side of I-80 west of the Waterman Boulevard exit, an orange cone in a highway lane and an elderly couple who ran out of gas trying to get to Vacaville. He tries to log three incidents per shift. He puts an average of 225 to 250 miles on the vehicle a day – but there are also days like the one where he only put 21 miles on the vehicle. He was at the scene of a fatal accident.
They can do small repairs on vehicles and stop to give a gallon of gas to those whose calculations leave them short of a gas station. The part about it being a free service stumps many who Hemingway stops to help.
“There is no charge,” he said. “It’s 100 percent free (and we’re) not allowed to accept tips.”
He recounted the story of a nicely dressed man he rolled up on waiting for help to come fix a flat tire. Hemingway said the man was worried he was going to miss his flight waiting and was so grateful to Hemingway that he offered a $200 tip.
When Hemingway refused, the man said, “It’s cash, man.”
“We get that a lot,” Hemingway said.
He said he also encounters people who don’t want their help and said they have to talk the stranded motorists into letting them help. They either don’t believe it’s free or are concerned about a stranger stopping to help them. For the most part though, Hemingway said people are appreciative of the service.
“It’s one of those jobs when you have to not take offense when they say “I hope I never see you again,’ ” Hemingway said.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.