By Alan M. Petrillo
While standardized lines of vehicles built by ambulance makers are the norm, more and more buyers are asking makers to customize rigs to meet their special requirements.
The type of customization varies with the needs of the department or agency as well as the job that will be required of the ambulance, but manufacturers say some unusual custom ambulances have been requested from the customer’s side of the transaction.
Chad Newsome, national sales manager for PL Custom Body and Equipment Co. Inc., says PL Custom has made a number of “very custom” ambulances but that the company always is cognizant of customized elements that might make the rig unsafe from a design standpoint. “For example, a customer might want a number of extremely heavy components on one side of the truck, which would mean the truck is not balanced for its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR),” Newsome points out. “Or, they might spec the vehicle where the electrical needs exceed the generating capacity of the truck itself, which would cause us to look at additional sources of power.”
Newsome adds that PL Custom continues to update its basic designs to comply with all standards coming out in the industry as well as the spirit of those safety standards, such as how to keep people seat belted and secured to minimize risk yet still able to do their job effectively and efficiently in the back of the rig. He says that some states go by the federal General Services Administration KKK-A-1822 specification for ambulances, while others adopt National Fire Protection Association 1917, Standard for Automotive Ambulances, for the regulations. Newsome says some customization changes came about, “when KKK changed its standard for securing equipment inside the box, such as portable oxygen tanks, monitors, and cot retention.”
|1 PL Custom Body and Equipment Co. Inc. customized this Type 1 ambulance for Mount Weather (VA) Fire Rescue on a Dodge chassis with a door-forward design, all-aluminum interior, five custom exterior compartments, Buckstop front bumper, and custom interior design. (Photo courtesy of PL Custom Body and Equipment Co. Inc.)|
A Type 1 ambulance, Newsome observes, is a cab and chassis unit with a modular container on the back, in both walk-through and nonwalk-through styles. Type 2 ambulances are narrow vans with raised roofs like the Ford Transit and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Type 3 rigs have a van-front RV-style cutaway chassis coupled with a box on the rear, historically walk-through but sometimes pass-through, he adds.
Chad Brown, vice president of sales and marketing for Braun Industries Inc., agrees that KKK specification change notices numbers 8 and 9 on cot retention, seat belt retention, oxygen, and fire extinguisher retention “are two of the things driving customization, along with customer needs.” Brown points out that the traditional squad bench in the patient box is disappearing and being replaced by a captain’s chair. “We’re using a captain’s chair on a 36- to 40-inch Mobility 1 track that allows the chair to slide forward and back as well as to swivel 90 degrees to face the patient,” Brown says. “The attendant stays belted in the captain’s chair the entire time.”
|2 This medium-duty ambulance, built by PL Custom for the Mishawaka (IN) Fire Department, is on a 2016 Freightliner M2 chassis and has five custom exterior compartments, a modified “Medic In Mind” interior, temperature-controlled storage cabinet, custom seating, and locking medication storage.|
Brown says that Braun is also installing a cabinet at the head of where the squad bench was, where it serves to hold a life pack, an electronic screen, drawers for equipment, and waste trash and sharps containers. “No matter where the attendants are in the truck, they are able to control the truck’s features as well as have access to the equipment they need to do their jobs,” he adds.
John Scullin, regional sales manager for central and western United States for Demers Ambulances, Inc., says that customization on ambulances is different than on fire trucks. “On the fire side, everyone wants something different on their truck, but on ambulances, it’s more about optimization of taking something proven safe and crash-tested and fitting it to meet their needs,” Scullin says.
|3 The Melville (NY) Volunteer Fire Department had PL Custom build this medium-duty ambulance on a 2016 Freightliner M2 chassis with an overall length of 27 feet 10 inches to allow it to carry two patients, end to end, on stretchers. The unit is completely custom and has seven exterior storage compartments and seating for seven inside the patient module.|
The interior of the patient box is where ambulances most differ from each other, Scullin maintains. “It’s like remodeling a house with changing the foundation,” he says. “Generally the cabinets are laid out the same, but there might be changes in doors, like roll-up doors or net-covered doors, and flip-up cabinet frames to make equipment easy to get to. We also are asked to customize the depths of some cabinets, and it seems like every department wants its sharps containers, gloves, and trash containers in different spots inside the box.”
Demers recently delivered 10 Type 1 advanced life support (ALS) ambulances to the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, Scullin says. The rigs are on Dodge Ram 4500 HD chassis with Demers MXP150 patient modules. “Phoenix needed taller and wider exterior compartments,” Scullin says, “and they wanted a specific size street side compartment for their air packs, which we had to custom design. We also customized the design of their spotlights and air conditioning units on the exterior as well as eliminatied the squad bench and installed two sliding attendant seats that move fore and aft and swivel 90 degrees.”
|4 PL Custom built this medium-duty ambulance for the Pascoag (RI) Fire Department on a Freightliner M2 chassis with seven exterior compartments and the “Medic In Mind” squad bench design. The custom interior also features a recessed oxygen port in the ceiling with flowmeter control at the forward “Medic In Mind” location. (Photos 2-4 courtesy of PL Custom Body and Equipment Co. Inc.)|
Brown says Braun built two Type 3 ambulances on Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis for the Fort Worth (IN) Parkview Hospital that did not have any floor-mounted cabinets inside the patient box. “We installed tracks on the walls and mounted the cabinets to the tracks,” Brown points out. “It makes the unit scalable and flexible according to their particular needs.”
Ford F-450 and F-550 chassis are the most popular for Type 1 ambulances that Braun is building, Brown notes. “We are doing a lot of extended and crew cab configurations and also taking the bench seat out of the back and putting in personal storage lockers off the front console but separate from the ambulance body so there is no potential for cross contamination,” he says. “Typically the cabinets are used for firefighters’ bunker gear, safety vests, and helmets.”
|5 Demers Ambulances Inc. built 10 Type 1 advanced life support ambulances for the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department on Dodge Ram 4500 HD chassis with Demers MXP150 patient modules.|
In addition, nonwalk-through ambulances are the norm these days, Brown says. “Walk-throughs need a lot of space for the door to open and clear,” he says, “but by customizing the area with a pass-through window, you can put a lot of equipment or cabinetry in the space saved.”
Newsome says PL Custom built a custom medium-duty ambulance for the Melville (NY) Fire Department that has two in-line cot locations. “New York doesn’t require the use of either Stryker or Ferno power cot systems, so we were able to do that,” he said.
|6 The Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department ambulances built by Demers feature a custom designed interior with dual seats replacing a squad bench and sharps containers built into the cabinet top near the head of the cots.|
Electronics are becoming more functional to meet ambulance customers’ needs, Newsome believes. “We are integrating software, like digitally recording what happens in the back for the patient call report,” he says, “and integrating driving cameras for driver safety and protection in case of a lawsuit. In the back of the truck, we are seeing radio frequency identification tags for inventory control of all the equipment. The crew is able to download the truck’s inventory when they return from a call and know what needs to be restocked. From an operational standpoint, they can turn inventory into a lean, efficient operation.”
|7 Demers Ambulances Inc. built six Type 3 ambulances for the Las Vegas (NV) Fire Department on Chevrolet Cutaway G45 chassis, with customized interiors including lockable medication storage cabinets. (Photos 5-7 courtesy of Demers Ambulances Inc.)|
Newsome believes that the Liquid Spring hydraulic suspension system has benefited all ambulance manufacturers. “There are no more compressor issues, no dry rot in the air bags, no sags, and no moisture,” he says. “It’s one of the best innovations in the last couple of years.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.