Knowledgebase-The Authority of an E-911 Board Regarding Towing


Information Product

Title:The Authority of an E-911 Board Regarding Towing
Summary:Does the E-911 board have the authority to establish the rules and regulations under which wreckers will be dispatched within the city?
Original Author:Hemsley, Sid
Co-Author:
Product Create Date:04/11/2000
Last Reviewed on::08/03/2017
Subject:Emergency communications; Emergency communications--Districts
Type:Legal Opinion
Legal Opinion: E911-2 public.doc

Reference Documents:

Text of Document: You have the following question: Does the E-911 board have the authority to establish the rules and regulations under which wreckers will be dispatched within the city?

That question arises from information the city has received that with respect to towing calls made by the city's officers, the E-911 district would not honor a city wrecker rotation list should the city adopt one.

The answer to that question probably depends upon which kind of dispatch system the E-911 system has adopted. If, as I assume to be the case, the county E-911 district board of directors has adopted the "Direct dispatch" method of handling E-911 calls for emergency services, the answer is yes.

Here let me make a preliminary point: federal law prohibits local governments from adopting ordinances or other regulations that regulate the route, service or price of consensual towing services. As passed in 1994, 49 U.S.C., section 14501(c)(1) provided that:

Except as provided in paragraphs (2) and (3), a State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of 2 or more States may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to price, route, or service of any motor carrier...or any motor private carrier, broker or freight forwarder with respect to the transportation of property.

But 49 U.S.C., section 14501(c)(2) preserved the states, their "safety regulatory authority" with respect to motor vehicles, their rights to "impose highway route controls or limitations based on the size or weight of the motor vehicle or the hazardous nature of the cargo," and their authority to "regulate motor carrier with regard to minimum amounts of financial responsibility relating to insurance requirements and self-insurance authorization" A 1995 amendment to 49 U.S.C., section 14501, added to the list of authority preserved to the states, the authority:


    to enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision relating to the price of for-hire motor vehicle transportation by a tow truck, if such transportation is performed without the prior consent or authorization of the owner or operator of the motor vehicle.

The bottom line of those federal statutes is that states and their political subdivisions cannot regulate the route or service for consensual or non-consensual tows, or the price of consensual tows. However, the states and their political subdivisions can regulate the price of non-consensual tows, and can regulate the tow truck safety. Those laws undoubtedly apply to E-911 systems. [See Cedar Bluff 24-Hour Towing, Inc v. City of Knoxville , U.S. Dist. Ct. for Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville, No. 3:98-cv-212, filed March 8, 1999.]

However, the extent to which a particular local government can adopt any tow truck regulations that states or political subdivisions are authorized to adopt under those federal statutes depends upon whether that local government's parent state has delegated that authority to the local government. The same thing is true of E-911 districts. Such districts are declared in the Emergency Communications District Law to be municipalities [Tennessee Code Annotated , section 7-86-107], but they are limited purpose municipalities, and probably, in reality, quasi-public corporations. [ Fountain City Sanitation District v. Knox County Election Commission 308 S.W.2d 482 (1957); First Utility District v. Clark, 834 S.W.2d 283 (Tenn. 1992)] But it is said in 1 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations, section 2.13, that, "A quasi-municipal corporation, like a municipal corporation, has only those powers that have been expressly granted to it by the state or that are necessary for it to discharge its duties and carry out its it objects and purposes."

Several Tennessee Attorney General's Opinions, correctly reasoned in my opinion, make precisely that point. For example, OAG 94-007 opines that E-911 districts cannot appropriate funds for the installation of road signs because the Emergency Communications District Law limits such districts to operating a call answering system coupled to one of the methods provided in that Law for the handling of such calls. OAG 95-064 opines that an E-911 district that has adopted the "Direct dispatch" method has the authority to use telephone service revenues to purchase equipment and salaries related to emergency dispatch services, but that authority does not include the actual provision of emergency services. Those opinions turn upon the authority delegated by the State to E-911 districts under the Emergency Communications District Law.

The State of Tennessee has granted most municipalities broad police powers over their streets, motor vehicles and traffic. That is true of the city as well. [your Municipal Charter , Article II, sections 1(12) and (1)(26); Tennessee Code Annotated , section 55-10-307. Also see Steil v. City of Chattanooga , 152 S.W.2d 624 (1941); Collier v. Baker, 27 S.W.2d 1085 (1930); Brimer v. Municipality of Jefferson City, 216 S.W.2d 1 (1948); Paris v. Paris-Henry County Utility District, 340 S.W.3d 885 (1960); Blackburn v. Dillon 255 S.W.2d 47 (1949).] There are also a number of general statutes in Tennessee dealing with wreckers and towing, some of which govern all non-consensual tows. Tennessee Code Annotated , section 55-16-101 et seq. contains detailed rules that law enforcement officers, private property owners, and businesses must follow with respect to the towing and storage of unclaimed and abandoned motor vehicles. A number of other state statutes govern the towing of vehicles in handicapped parking spaces [Tennessee Code Annotated , section 55-21-108], and the towing and storage of stolen vehicles [ Tennessee Code Annotated , section 55-5-101]. All of those statutes expressly or impliedly authorize municipalities to tow motor vehicles. However, as far as I can determine, none of the statutes prescribe how wrecker and towing services will be dispatched or how such services will be administered at the scene of emergencies by police officers.

There cannot be found in the Emergency Communications District Law any express delegation to E-911 districts of the state's authority to regulate towing in any respect. But municipalities have three kinds of powers: (1) express power; (2) implied power; and (3) those powers essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporations. [ City of Elizabethton v. Carter County, 321 S.W.2d 882 (1959); Penn-Dixie Cement Corporation v. Kingsport , 225 S.W.2d 270 (1949).] It appears to me that under the Emergency Communications District Law, the adoption of limited towing regulations is a power essential to the declared objects and purposes of E-911 districts under one circumstance: where the E-911 district has adopted the "Direct dispatch" method of handling requests for emergency services.

The Emergency Communications District Law found at Tennessee Code Annotated , section 7-86-101 et seq., authorizes the establishment by counties and cities of E-911 districts. As I understand the facts, under that Law, a county-wide E-911 district was established by your County. Tennessee Code Annotated , section 7-86-106, provides that, "The emergency communications district so created shall be a 'municipality' or public corporation... ", and that "The powers of each district shall be vested in and exercised by a majority of the members of the board of directors of the district." [Emphasis is mine.]

It is said in Tennessee Code Annotated, section 7-86-107(a), that:

The board of directors of the district shall create an emergency communications service designed to have the capacity of utilizing at least one (1) of the following three methods in response to emergency calls:

(1) Direct dispatch method;

(2) Relay method; or

(3) The transfer method.

The board of directors shall elect the method which it determines to be the most feasible for the district. [Emphasis is mine.]

I do not know which of the methods your County E-911 District board of directors has selected. Presumably, it is the first method; otherwise, the city would do its own dispatching and your question would probably not have arisen. The reason that is so is because Tennessee Code Annotated, section 7-86-103, distinguishes between the above dispatch methods. All of the methods have in common this definition and trigger: "a 911 service in which a public service answering point, upon receipt of a telephone request for emergency services..." At that point the distinction between the methods arises, and turns on what the answering point does after the receipt of the telephone request for emergency service:

  • "Direct dispatch method" : The answering point "provides for the dispatch of appropriate emergency service units and a decision as to the proper action to be taken." [Subsection (5)]
  • "Relay method": The answering point "notes the pertinent information from the caller and relays such information to the appropriate public safety agency or other agencies or other providers of emergency service for dispatch of an emergency unit." [Subsection (11)]
  • "Transfer method": The answering point "directly transfers such request to an appropriate public safety agency or other provider of emergency services."

    The first method is a one-step method in which the answering point both answers the telephone call for emergency services and dispatches the appropriate services. The latter two methods are more or less two stage methods, in which the answering point answers the telephone call for emergency service but either relays or transfers the request for further action by the appropriate agency.

    The intention of the Legislature is the cardinal rule of statutory construction. The Emergency Communications District Law is clear on its face the General Assembly intended the E-911 board of directors select one of the three methods of dispatching emergency services. That Law is not clear on its face what the General Assembly intended should be the authority of the E-911 system with respect to the political subdivisions in the district under each dispatch method. However, it does seem fundamental that because the methods are different, the General Assembly must have intended the authority of the E-911 district to be different with respect to each method. For those reasons, we need to look at how the three dispatch methods logically operate.

    The latter two methods appear to contemplate that the agency to which the telephone call has been relayed or transferred will dispatch units and services according to its own policies and procedures. Under the "Relay method," it is the duty and obligation of the answering point to take down pertinent information from the caller and to "relay" that information to the "appropriate" entity. That method undoubtedly involves policies and procedures on the part of the E-911 district board of directors dealing with how the answering point takes the call, takes information from the caller, and how the call taker determines which is the "appropriate" entity to which the request for emergency services should be relayed. Nothing in the definition of that method involves the call taker in determining how or at what level the entity should respond to the request.

    The same is true under the "Transfer method," except that this method does not speak of any duty on the part of the answering point to take down pertinent information. Obviously, the call taker must obtain some essential information upon which to base a determination of what is the "appropriate" entity to which the request for emergency services should be transferred. However, at that point, the call taker's duty is simply to directly transfer the request for emergency services to that entity, which itself makes the determination of how and at what level it will respond to the request.

    But under the "Direct dispatch method" when the answering point receives the telephone request for emergency services, the call taker has two responsibilities:

    1. "dispatch of appropriate emergency service units"

    2. " [make] a decision as to the proper action to be taken."

    This method is distinguished from the other two methods by specifically imposing on the E-911 answering point certain duties that contemplate, and probably inevitably lead to, a higher level of regulation-making on the part of the board of directors than is contemplated in the other two methods. Otherwise, how is the board to insure that the "appropriate" emergency service units are dispatched, and that "a decision as to the proper action to be taken" is made with respect to each call for services.

    It may be that the towing regulations the E-911 system adopts to accomplish the duties and purposes of the direct dispatch method are not the best of several options. But, generally, where there is more than one method of accomplishing an authorized municipal end, and both ways are proper, the governing body has the choice as to which of the means it will select. [South Central Bell Telephone Co. v. City of Chattanooga , 578 S.W.2d 950 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1978). It is also been held that, "The power to exercise sound discretion is implicit in the power to regulate." [Barnes v. City of Dayton , 392 S.W.2d 813, 818 (1965)]

    For those reasons, an E-911 district board of directors probably has the discretion to determine how it carries out the two responsibilities it is assigned under the "Direct dispatch" method. There is probably no reason it could not recognize and apply the emergency service regulations developed by the various political entities or emergency service providers in the district. With respect to towing services, it would probably be consistent with its responsibilities for the E-911 system to recognize and apply non-consensual tow regulations adopted by the City. However, the decision of the E-911 district board of directors to do so, or to adopt its own regulations, would probably be within the discretion of the board.

    Tennessee Code Annotated, section 7-86-107(b), does provide that, "Each public safety emergency services provider retains the right to dispatch its own services, unless a voluntary agreement is made between such provider and the board of directors of the emergency communications district." The term "public safety emergency service provider," is defined in Tennessee Code Annotated, section 7-86-101, as:


      any municipality or county government that provides emergency services to the public. Such providers and/or services include, but are not limited to, emergency fire protection, law enforcement, police protection, emergency medical services, poison control, animal control, suicide prevention, and emergency rescue management.

    That language indicates that a county-wide E-911 system cannot compel a political entity to participate in the "direct dispatch method," and preserves the right of the city to dispatch its own services. However, if the E-911 district board of directors has selected the direct dispatch method and for some reason a city in the county is unhappy with the district's lawfully adopted policies and procedures, probably the city's only option is to provide its own dispatch services.

    The right of an E-911 district that has adopted the direct dispatch method to adopt internal regulations governing the dispatch of wreckers , would not bar a municipality from adopting regulations governing wrecker safety, the price of non-consensual tows, and any other regulations it is authorized to adopt under federal and state law. If wreckers dispatched by the E-911 district failed to conform to the municipality's lawfully adopted wrecker regulations, the municipality could charge the wrecker operators with violations of those regulations.

    That opinion is supported by the rules of statutory construction that require the courts to read statutes governing the same subject together and by giving them a reading that harmonizes them, if possible. [ McDaniel v. Physicians Mutual Insurance Co., 621 S.W.2d 391 (Tenn. 1981); Brooks v. Fisher , 705 S.W.2d 135 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1985).] As pointed out above, the Emergency Communications District Law does not expressly give E-911 districts the authority to adopt wrecker regulations. However, it does give E-911 district the authority to adopt the direct dispatch method, and under that method internal dispatch regulations related to wrecker services appears to be implied as a power essential to the declared objects and purposes of E-911 district. But various city charter provisions and general state law that authorize your City to regulate its streets, and motor vehicles and traffic on those streets, and federal law related to local government wrecker regulation authorize the city to adopt certain wrecker regulations. If all those laws are read together and harmonized, they reflect no conflict, each is given effect, and the policies of the law supporting all of them are preserved.


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