The nation’s Ambulance service is one of Australia’s largest logistical operations – Words by Stuart Martin
A 3600-strong fleet covering more than 140 million kilometres annually is nothing at which to sneeze, although if that’s all you’re doing then you don’t need to add to their workload.
The $3 billion a year ambulance service is saving lives across the country, employing nearly 17,000 people with an extra 6000 volunteers also providing medical assistance. They’re treating more than three million patients within the 3.5 million reported incidents, and more than a third of those are “emergency” transports, with another third being considered urgent.
That’s the burden shouldered by the nation’s ambulance service vehicles, the bulk of which currently wear a three-pointed star. In this issue Delivery looks at what needs to be added to the vehicles to prepare them for these life-saving duties.
The Sprinter makes up the vast majority of the vehicles in front line life-saving service across the country, with some specialist first-responder vehicles coming from other breeds.
Peter Barker, Head of Fleet Sales for Mercedes-Benz Vans, said it was fortunate to have flexible specification choices to accommodate the ambulance services’ needs.
“It’s quite ridiculous really in terms of the variations, which is great. We can get what the ambulance people need straight from the factory,” he said.
Ambulance services across the country agree on a common specification, for the purposes of keeping the cost down by buying in bulk. Some of the services are adopting powered stretchers and loading systems to help lift heavier patients, while the paramedics avoid lifting them to keep from landing in a Work, Health and Safety disaster.
A GVM of 4100 kg on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has kept it at the front of the pack as an ideal foundation vehicle for an emergency medical transport vehicle. Volkswagen is aiming to dent the dominance of its compatriot with the introduction of its new Crafter (which has a similar GVM but is no longer built in a shared arrangement with Mercedes-Benz) but so far, the Mercedes-Benz product has kept its nose in front.
Ambulance Victoria’s fleet and equipment business manager Gabriel Miltenoff said opting for what the manufacturer can supply from the factory was the safest course of action in terms of warranty and load capacity.
“We were stipulating a minimum of 4000 kg GVM, because we were reaching the limits with equipment and fit-out,” he said.
“There used to be a significant gap between Benz and the competition, it’s closing rapidly and we’re considering alternatives that we’ll put it through a suite of tests we’ve developed with Monash University, depending on those results we’ll trial the vehicles,” he added.
Queensland Ambulance’s Ian Tarr said both the equipment and patients were becoming heavier.
“Our latest powered stretchers and our patients are getting heavier, while the paramedics are getting smaller. The stretchers weigh 80 kg and take 318 kg and the powered loading system is 97 kg so that’s a lot to take from the GVM – that’s a big deal to us,” he said.
St John Ambulance Northern Territory Workshop Manager Mark Grahame said the NT service was a recent convert to SmartBar.
“We’ve only just put the SmartBar on the last five ambulances we’ve built, we’ve just started fitting them to our LandCruisers as well,” he said.
“The alloy bars we were using, which cost more, were destroyed if you hit a kangaroo, with the only recourse being to bin them. With our LandCruisers we would normally use a steel bar rather than an alloy bar, but we were getting really close with our GVM. We’ve also decided not to use winches as well, so all that means we’re saving a lot of weight and money,” he said.
Queensland Ambulance’s Ian Tarr has been in the fleet business for three decades and conducts regular market analysis at least every three years.
“Since we started using Benz in 2005 we haven’t found any manufacturer yet that meets the same spec,” he said.
“If you look at the kilometres we do just last year QLD service travelled 42 million kilometres, with 1.2 million responses, in a fleet of 1455 vehicles. They’re big numbers and we do rely on a quality reliable product.”
“Total cost of ownership starts from the moment you do a Google search through to after sales support and what you get when you sell them on,” he said.
The Benz three-year 200,000 km warranty had also been a factor, but recent increases in alternative new vehicle warranties to five years will attract more fleet attention.
Most of the States don’t change the tyres supplied by the manufacturer, with the St John NT ambulance vehicles alone in choosing another brand.
Mark Grahame said the Territory presented unique road and weather conditions that warranted a change in tyre on the Sprinter and the LandCruiser vehicles, the latter deployed in off-road incidents.
“We change to a Bridgestone tyre on both vehicles, an All/Terrain Dueler and the Sprinter gets a light truck tyre from Bridgestone as well.
“We try not to put the Sprinters on the dirt, and use the other vehicles, but the Continentals weren’t lasting as long up here and were noisy on the coarse-chip bitumen,” he said.
Ambulance colleagues to the South led the charge on installing SmartBar equipment, with SA Ambulance Service being the first to adopt the locally designed and manufactured bar. The recently-developed rear bar is also being fitted to many of the national ambulance vehicle fleet.
The wilds of Tasmania have also warranted the fitment of lightweight SmartBars, as well as the use of some terrain-specific machinery.
Ambulance Tasmania’s acting manager of technical and operation support services Kim Fazackerley said its fleet of emergency vehicles were not greatly modified from that supplied by the manufacturer.
“We don’t make any suspension or tyre modifications to our Mercedes Sprinters,” he said.
“The service has acquired some additional specific ambulances – Toyota LandCruiser Troop Carrier 4x4s and Volkswagen AWDs – for our rural and snow response use and snow chains are stored in some of the management fleet’s AWD vehicles. We retrofit some of our rural Branch Station vehicles with SmartBars to guard against animal strike,” he said.
With occupational health and safety an ever-increasing concern, the presence of active safety features is a vital consideration – Peter Barker from Mercedes-Benz Vans said the ambulance specification has a lot of safety gear.
“Our Ambulance spec is focused on high safety levels. A lot of the safety gear is specified as standard, the 360-degree camera, AEB and the adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning too.
“We had the option of going active on that, but the ambulance services decided they didn’t want the intervention when they were having to change lanes without indicators in an emergency,” he said.
SmartBar Australia was given lead time to develop a bar compatible with the active safety gear, with CEO Kevin Baker saying that safety is a company priority and there is no more critical a vehicle than an ambulance.
“Anything that can be done to keep ambulances on the road and working longer, not in workshops being repaired, is what we want to achieve,” he said.
Queensland Ambulance Service’s Ian Tarr said the service had used SmartBars since 2007 and was now rolling out the rear protection systems.
“Around 40 per cent of collision incidents happened when reversing. A rear protection system does decrease the amount of subsequent damage that is sustained in a collision. It means we have less downtime for vehicles in our fleet for repairs sustained in collisions,’’ Mr. Tarr added.