Not All UTVs Are Created Equal

By Kimball Johnson
President and Owner
Kimtek Corporation

In recent years, the big brother of ATVs, known as the utility terrain vehicle (UTV) or side-by-side, has seen a rapid rise in use by emergency services organizations across the country. Fire, police, and the emergency medical service (EMS) have realized a wide variety of uses and applications for UTVs, including wildland firefighting, emergency medical evacuation from remote locations, police search and rescue operations, crowd control, and SARS urban interface, to name a few.

As president and owner of a manufacturer of medical and fire skid units built specifically for these specialized vehicles, I get calls daily from chief officers and administrators from across the country inquiring about the suitability of one type or make of UTV over another. The ones who haven’t purchased a UTV yet are sometimes in luck. It is the ones who have already purchased a UTV, with the mistaken notion that the particular make or model they purchased will be adequate for the needs of the emergency services they lead, who can be in trouble.

There are many UTV makes and models on the market today to choose from. Some are much better suited for emergency services work than others, while some have no business being used by public safety organizations at all. The Polaris Ranger 6×6, XP 4×4, and Crew 4×4; Kubota RTV 900, 1100, and 1140; Kawasaki Mule 4010 and Trans 4×4; John Deere Gator 6×6 and 4×4; Cub Cadet Big Country; Bobcat; The Buffalo 6×6; and the Argo amphibious are all units that are very popular and are suited for emergency services work. Many other makes and models deserve tighter scrutiny to ensure they will be useful and safe for the missions they will be expected to fulfill.

Planning for the Mission

Emergency service organizations need to put just as much time, effort, thought, and due diligence into the purchase of their UTV as they would for their next ambulance or fire truck.

First, agencies need to outline mission objectives, types of typography/geography in the main response area (hilly and steep vs. swampy and moist environments), and ultimately the primary mission of the UTV in the organization-medical transport, wildland firefighting, or a combination of the two. Once a department has these answers, it can look at the different UTV specifications to determine what best meet the mission objectives.

Second, safety must always be highest on the list. Most UTVs provide seat belts, but make sure the UTV model you are interested in comes equipped with them-and then write proper SOGs or SOPs to ensure your organization follows the rules-as well as has a restraint operative protective system (ROPS), which is essentially a roll cage that protects the occupants of the UTV’s seating areas.

Third, consider the overall weight-carrying capacity of the entire unit. More specifically, the carrying capacity of the cargo bed is of utmost importance. This is where many departments get tripped up. They go out and purchase a unit that cannot meet the industry carrying requirements of skid units but find out too late.

The Cargo Bed

Regarding cargo bed requirements for a medical-type skid unit, Kimtek has a rule of thumb that the UTV you are buying should be rated to carry at least 650 pounds in the cargo bed of the unit. This number comes from adding the weight of the base skid unit (usually 150 pounds or less), the average weight of an attendant, patient, trauma bag, O2 bag and bottle, and other necessary items. Some UTVs are rated to only carry 400 pounds. If it is a wildland firefighting skid with water and gear that you are interested in, that number can jump to 900 pounds and greater for a required rated cargo capacity.

When you perform due diligence and get specifications, the Web sites of all the manufacturers mentioned above are great starting places. For instance, the new Polaris 6×6 Ranger has an overall gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 2,000 pounds with a rated cargo bed capacity of 1,250 pounds. The Kubota RTV 900 has similar ratings at a GVWR of 1,700 pounds and 1,102-pound cargo bed capacity. The Polaris Ranger 4×4 has a GVWR of 1,400 pounds and a cargo bed rated capacity of 1,000 pounds. As you can see, the relationship between the make and model specifications and rated capacities soon helps you narrow your search for the right UTV for the mission you expect it to undertake.

Most UTV skid manufacturers are starting to standardize skid unit size. The UTV’s cargo bed should be at least 49 inches wide and 54 inches long (with tailgate down). UTV units with smaller size beds will potentially restrict the number of available skid units and could drive the price up substantially if you need a customized skid unit built to fit a particular UTV.

Another important note is that any patients and attendants located in the rear cargo bed area of a UTV on a medical or fire/rescue skid must be completely below and inside the sides of the UTV chassis. On some skid units, the attendant seat is set so high that the attendant’s head and shoulders are above the ROPS, thereby exposing the attendant to low-hanging branches on the trail or building overhangs, possibly causing severe head trauma. Other skid units run the patient side to side, exposing the patient’s head and feet to possible trauma as those portions of the body are hanging over the sides of the UTV chassis.

Pick the Right UTV

Remember, as a chief officer of an emergency services organization, you do not want to be put in the unenviable position of having to answer tough questions by a high-priced litigation attorney bringing a lawsuit against your organization because you placed the wrong UTV in the wrong mission area, resulting in an accident. We must give these vehicles the same respect and due diligence when deciding which unit to purchase as we do when we buy the larger vehicles. They can harm our personnel and our patients just like if we have an accident with the larger units. It is imperative that we do everything to prevent an accident by purchasing the right UTV for the mission.

KIMBALL JOHNSON is president and owner of KIMTEK Corporation (, maker of the Medlite Medical Transport skid unit and the Firelite Transport for wildland firefighting/rescue. He is a retired volunteer chief and volunteer EMT.

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