When it comes to the highs and the lows of the job, Keith McLachlan, owner of Vernon Towing, knows towing is what you make of it, and he has made the best of it, even through tough times.
by Sarah Bruce
As an honest guy, Keith will tell you that towing is a tough job but, with the right attitude, it is a rewarding one. He began towing back in 1979 as a part-time job at Tritow, in Vancouver, B.C. Now, more than forty years later, he is the owner of Vernon Towing and a leading professional in the industry.
“With towing, a lot of it is what you make of it,” Keith said. “True success with business comes from the people you work with. Their commitment and dedication to the job and the customer base that we serve is paramount. They work long hours at times answering phones and managing calls or in extreme heat and cold on the road and some days it must seem thankless. That said, they remain devoted and come to work every day. This is a constant reflection on the kind of business we are in the community.”
“Keith purchased Vernon Towing in 1989 and has seen not only the business grow, but also the city itself. With growth comes opportunity, however, he is selective with which ones he pursues, choosing a positive working environment over a stressful one whenever possible.
Anywhere we are, we are there because
someone wanted us to be there.”
“We just choose not to chase those opportunities and one of them would be the private impound business,” Keith said. “I was involved in it when I was in Vancouver and it’s a necessary evil. There is nothing more frustrating than paying for a parking stall at your apartment every month and every night you come home from work and there is some clown parked there. You’ve talked to him many times, you’ve talked to the building manager, the security guard, and left nice notes on his windshield. You’ve even offered to take him to dinner if he’ll just not park there but ultimately you get to a point where the vehicle has to be impounded. But that kind of thing brings all sorts of problems: people coming into your place of business and they’re angry and, you know, ‘Why’d you tow me away? You shouldn’t have towed me away.’ You’re this and you’re that.’ That kind of business was just something we were never really going to chase.
“Anywhere we are, we are there because someone wanted us to be there. So, we have a much more redeeming sense of satisfaction for the service that we provide. We are helping people; unlocking cars, changing tires, boosting batteries, recovering when they slide off a lonesome stretch of road, getting them out of ditches, and ensuring people get to where they are supposed to be,” Keith said, explaining there is a lot more satisfaction helping people when they thank you for it. “It’s not uncommon for people to come here and drop off a box of beer for the guys or cash as a tip, homemade cookies and muffins, sometimes just a card in the mail that we post on the bulletin for drivers to see.
“That said, not everything we do is pleasant. There are times we go to horrendous car wrecks and sometimes the outcome is not happy, it’s grim. Because you’re operating this kind of business in a smaller community there are times when you get there before, or at the same time, as first responders. It’s different than in a big city, where first responders have often already dealt with the damage before the tow operators get there. In smaller communities, you become a little bit more involved with what’s going on and sometimes have to provide some level of assistance to help expedite what responders are trying to do, like pulling a car out of a body of water or rolling a vehicle over so they can extricate people who are injured or deceased.
“Sometimes there are happy things, like the satisfaction you take away from doing the job that we do. Sometimes there are other memories of the job that hang with you a lot longer, for negative reasons.”
With the highs come the lows and Vernon Towing has experienced the worst kind of tragedy seen all too often in the towing industry. But, like everything Keith does, he had to make sure something positive came from something so awful.“On December 13, 2006, we had a driver go out to do a BCAA call just south of town,” Keith said. “He was struck at the roadside by a passing motorist and killed. Ernie Semkiw was his name.
Sometimes there are happy things like the job satisfaction you take away from doing the job that we do. Sometimes there are other memories of the job that hang with you a lot longer, for negative reasons.”
“Ernie was a competent operator; he knew the job, knew how to do a scene assessment, knew how to approach situations where his safety or the stranded motorist’s safety might be compromised, and was a Level 2/3 and 4/5 WreckMaster. He was not afraid to ask for help. Lots of times he’d ask for a buffer vehicle or traffic control to back him up but in this particular case he thought he had it covered—and he did, he was there to be seen, as was clearly defined in the police summary of the accident—but unfortunately it didn’t go that way for him. He was about to unload the dollies off the truck in order to get the broken-down vehicle off the road when a passing car trapped and rolled him against the side of the wrecker body and shot him out on to the road. He was basically gone before he hit the ground.
“That changed the dynamics of the way things went for us for some time. We not only lost Ernie that day, we lost two other employees over the next few days. I had a wife of one of my other drivers come in and say, ‘I can’t have my husband work here. We’ve got two kids and I can’t raise those kids on my own.’ The other driver was a driver who Ernie had mentored and had been with us for a year and was so upset and devastated by Ernie’s passing, he couldn’t do it anymore either.
“It put strain and pressure on the business in terms of being able to function. We had to hire new people and you had to know there was some hesitation with those individuals—the guy they were replacing was killed doing it. But we ran what I felt to be a safe operation. WorkSafeBC did an investigation and felt Ernie had exercised all the due-diligence and we had done the same with the respect to the training we were providing,” Keith said, explaining they have a “walk before you run” training process, with all operators required to be WreckMaster certified. “But in spite of that, I still felt there was more we could do and more that we could change in order to make it safer. That was a commitment I made to Ernie’s widow, Lynn, at that time. Ernie’s passing couldn’t be for nothing.
“I had all kinds of things going on at the time: WorkSafe doing their investigation and police continuing to do theirs. During that time of stress, I had to go home to my family every night and I wasn’t the same person anymore. It was hard to go home and turn off what I was dealing with every day and be the happy, carefree guy I used to be.
“Everyone has their own way of dealing with tragedy. So, the thing that I did do, as I promised Lynn Ernie’s passing wouldn’t be for nothing, was make something come from all of this. It was at that point I spearheaded a movement to bring the Slow Down Move Over law to B.C. It was already ongoing in Alberta and it became law as a result of a Mountie getting run down at the roadside at an accident. Her husband, who was a Mountie as well, took up the torch to bring legislation to Alberta and so I followed that and looked at everything they had put together and decided to bring the same legislation to B.C.”
Keith started a letter-writing campaign, writing to everyone he could in the local and provincial government, the BCAA (Adam Lamb in particular was a big supporter of the campaign) and first responder associations—as did the motorist Ernie had been assisting at the accident—asking them to get involved with the Slow Down Move Over campaign.
“I continued to push, getting everyone and anyone involved and did so for three years until early April of 2009, when John van Dongen, the solicitor general of the time, reached out to me and said, ‘Well Keith, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, we are going to make Ernie’s Law, law.’”
Unfortunately, due to regulations of the not being able to name legislation after a person, Ernie’s Law was simply called the Slow Down Move Over law instead, but Keith says, every time he drives down the highway and sees a Slow Down Move Over sign he thinks about Ernie and the legacy he left behind.
Photos: Courtesy Vernon Towing