Purchasing an Ambulance for the Fire Service

By Chad Newsome
National Sales Manager
P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc.

The need for today’s fire service to make informed decisions is vitally important in all aspects of purchasing. Knowing that budgets are being scrutinized from every angle adds a level of urgency not seen in recent years. In terms of ambulance buying, the goal of this article is to discuss the main parameters that will assist you in making an informed decision. Your new ambulance purchase must be clearly defined and easily justified and bring operational value to your department, your community, and your patients.

Defining the Purchase

When purchasing an ambulance for the fire service, regardless of department size or type, the best way to begin is to define your search before the need becomes critical. Begin with a clear understanding of what considerations you have for your new ambulance. Will this purchase be a result of group input? How can you protect your department during the build process? Finally, once purchased, how will it be serviced?

If using a committee, make sure many disciplines are integrated. Although rather obvious, compliance with regional, state, and federal guidelines is an area that purchasers need to be cognizant of. Emergency medical and fleet service personnel are understandable components of your committee makeup, as are the holders of the purse strings. However, there are others to consider as well. If your emergency vehicle stands out every time it responds, it can serve as a goodwill ambassador and also reinforce within your community the vital role your department plays. Finally, consult with neighboring departments that have recently purchased new ambulances and find out what worked for them. Once completed, compile all of the information and begin to rate each item according to its importance to your department as a whole.

When it comes time to purchase the unit, take the appropriate steps to protect your department. Today’s economy has greatly impacted the financial strength and stability of many emergency vehicle manufacturers. Requesting financial statements can be misleading—remember Enron? Instead, I strongly encourage the use of performance bonds. A performance bond ensures payment of a sum of money in case the contractor fails in the full performance of the contract. The rate charged for the performance bond is greatly influenced by the financial strength of the manufacturer, as evaluated by the third party guarantor.

Despite assurances to the contrary, every vehicle made today will have service needs. How will the service needs for both chassis and conversion of your new ambulance be addressed? Get the details out on the table before purchasing anything. Know how to handle service if the dealer goes belly up, the manufacturer goes into bankruptcy, or even if it is bought out. Although this might seem elementary to some, how easy is it to work on your ambulance if the manufacturer does not exist anymore? Serviceability is vitally important. At the close of every meeting with your vendors, you should ask for a copy of the sales professional’s notes. This will help ensure that you are both on the same page.

Justifying the Purchase

Regardless of your funding source, justifying your purchases has never been more important. To achieve this goal and remain above reproach, enter the purchasing process knowing the realities of your department’s fiscal limitations. Can you afford all that you want, or will you get whatever you can afford? Finally, what defines your departmental return on investment (ROI)?

Start with a defined budget and stick with it. It is prudent to ask the sales representative to give you budgetary ranges for similarly designed trucks. There is no reason to waste your time if the end result will be something you just cannot afford. Armed with your budgetary realities and the knowledge that the vendors you are interviewing can work within those parameters, you can zero in on what you need. Do not, however, neglect the long-term liabilities of inadequate purchases. Make sure all vendors are working toward meeting the needs you identified when you defined your purchase.

The prices of ambulances today are greatly impacted by both tangible and intangible requirements. To say that you want the latest in LED technology because you want to minimize amperage draw and realize the benefits of a longer warranty period exemplifies a tangible need. The intangible side comes when you compare serviceability of the item, access to the light head, and the wiring leading to the light head. Is the wiring clearly labeled? Does the manufacturer provide you with detailed “as-built” schematics to aid in the troubleshooting of electrical componentry? That is an intangible. Although both are important, usually only the former is discussed. Knowing the quality and durability of a product will enable you to justify your purchase.

Knowing the serviceability, reliability, and durability of a product will greatly influence your department’s ROI. In simplest terms, will a 10 percent purchase difference justify a 30 percent shorter service life?

Ensuring Operational Value

Once the search process begins, make sure you focus on what brings operational value to your new ambulance. Although it is important to listen to what is new in the industry, it is also important to differentiate between fads and trends. The easiest way to test this search parameter is to decide if a feature has operational value.

Is this “new” feature benefiting the patient, your crew, and your department, or is it just adding cost? In the late 1980s, as we all were really talking about blood borne pathogens, before body substance isolation (BSI), there was a new product on the market considered to be a must have. It was nothing more than biohazard sheeting on rollers that one would mount on the interior side of the ambulance and, when the “big one” hit, personnel would unroll the sheeting and latch it into the opposite side, forming a protective cocoon for the ambulance interior. The only problem was that crews could not access compartments or secure the stretcher—so much for operational value.

However, if new trends have a definable benefit, are you integrating them into your vehicle design? What steps are you taking to address crew and patient safety? Are you incorporating your delivery of patient care into the design phase of your new ambulance, or adapting to the design presented to you? In addition to patient-centric designs, what steps are you taking to maximize serviceability of your new ambulance to realize minimized downtime? The best new ambulance with the coolest new gadgets can’t help anyone if it cannot be easily serviced.

The final indicator of operational value is the willingness of your sales professionals, and the manufacturers they represent, to listen to your identified needs, goals, and concerns. Furthermore, do they care enough to go beyond just being order takers? One would hope that the sales professionals would share their vocational experience with you to give you a fair “pros-and-cons” evaluation regarding areas where input is needed. Although I understand that order takers are what some may prefer, my experience has been that customers appreciate this input. Regardless of the final decision, they will respect the collaborative effort.

Organize Your Approach

Purchasing an ambulance for the fire service is but one of the many purchasing decisions facing today’s fire service leaders. Just as preplanning is integral to positive outcomes in emergent situations, the same can be said of the purchase process. Knowing what defines your search is harder than you might imagine. However, going into the process with a well-organized approach will favorably impact the outcome. Have a roadmap to assist you to get through this process. Every investment should bring improvements to a department’s operational value within the community it serves. The steps outlined within this article will better arm you in successfully tackling this objective.

CHAD NEWSOME is the national sales manager for P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc. (PLCB). His role focuses on training of sales personnel, expansion into new territories, and supporting existing dealerships. He started his emergency vehicle sales career in 1991 and has been with PLCB since 2002. He has been involved with EMS since 1986 and currently serves as the public information officer for the Clinton (NJ) First Aid & Rescue Squad.

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