What Are You Going to Do With That Old Ambulance?


CarolinaFireJournal - By Jonathan Olson
By Jonathan Olson
01/12/2016 -

It has come time to retire the oldest member of your fleet, and the decision has been made that rather than remounting the module, a total replacement vehicle will be ordered — the subject of remounting will be a future article. Have you given consideration as to what is the best course of disposal for this ambulance? Sure, we’d all like to get “as much as we can get for it” to offset the cost of the new vehicle, but perhaps it is time that more consideration be given to exactly what is done with retired ambulances in the United States. 

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While there are clearly appropriate uses of these retired vehicles, the fact that they are easily seen in most any form as being “legitimate,” we should be more concerned with how they are used once they are no longer officially an ambulance.

The vast majority of these retired vehicles can and do go on to second careers, providing a high degree of functionality for many years to their new owners. Many of these vehicles are purchased by non-emergency transport services that are able to use them for several more years of service with minimal financial investment. While the original owner of the vehicle may have accumulated several hundred thousand miles of high-energy emergency work, these vehicles are often very suitable for slower paced, less intensive operations. I have seen other ambulances repurposed as service vehicles for rural fire departments as the exterior and interior compartment space are great for equipment storage and the climate controlled environments inside these vehicles are very functional for small scale responder rehabilitation operations.

Other examples of repurposing include use in a variety of construction trades, mobile pet grooming, and second-hand furniture pick-up and delivery — just to name a few examples I have seen in recent years. One of the less desirable examples of repurposed ambulances was in the news in 2012 from the Fort Worth, Texas area where an entrepreneur had taken an old ambulance and converted it into a mobile party vehicle, complete with seating for 12, flat screen televisions, fog machine and a pole. Their advertisements did tout the benefit of being able to ride around the area with “digital light and climate control and medical transport air ride suspension.”  While there was nothing in Texas statute at the time to prevent such use of a retired ambulance, an observant public safety community spoke up about the inappropriate use of this vehicle and has sought to prevent such from happening in the future.

While there are clearly appropriate uses of these retired vehicles, the fact that they are easily seen in most any form as being “legitimate,” we should be more concerned with how they are used once they are no longer officially an ambulance.

The market for retired ambulances has no known restriction in regards to who is allowed to purchase the vehicle or for what purpose they intend to use the vehicle. A recent search of the on-line auction site eBay found well over a hundred ambulances of all sizes, types, and color schemes available to this highest bidder. None of these vehicles lacked the legitimacy factor to allow them to be perceived by the public as an ambulance and many were available for a “buy now” price of under $15,000. But is the pushing of these vehicles into an unrestricted market the right thing for public safety to be doing in 2015?

In the two recent domestic terror acts, there was extensive live news coverage, both from the ground and from the air. With rare exception, the coverage included at some point the image of an ambulance, either engaged in the movement of the wounded or staged for deployment once the scene was secured to a degree that entry was permissible. But who was there checking the credentials of the responders to verify that this “big truck that looks like an ambulance” is really a legitimate medical crew present to render aid and transportation? Likely, no one was. In many communities around the nation, such a notion is taken for granted as everyone knows pretty much everyone in the local EMS system since they see each other throughout the workday, often at the emergency department. But in the event of a multiple patient event, it is likely that responders will come from the next jurisdiction, the next county, or perhaps the next state — especially for those of you in border areas — to assist. Are we safe assuming that everyone operating an ambulance is there for the right reason?  Unfortunately, that’s not likely to be the case any longer.

On the night of Nov. 13, 2015, a series of terrorist attacks resulted in 130 deaths and 350 injuries in Paris, France. In the ensuing days, much of Europe was on high alert for additional events. On the following Tuesday night a Germany soccer team was hosting the Netherlands and the game was cancelled 90 minutes prior to beginning after it was alleged that explosives had been smuggled into the stadium using an ambulance as a cover. Fortunately, no explosives were discovered and this resulted in a non-event.  Then on Nov. 21, 2015, Belgian authorities seized three former British ambulances outside of Brussels at a gas station, each still clearly labeled as being legitimate emergency vehicles. As the “Mirror,” a British media publication explained, “Police are probing any link to Islamic State after using old ambulances was revealed to be a hallmark cover tactic used by the terror group.”

While in neither case have authorities directly linked the use of ambulances to terror activities, it highlights the fact that these easily recognizable vehicles can and often do operate under an assumed authority and legitimacy and seizing upon that fact, could potentially be used in a fraudulent manner.

We no longer live in the world that we once did. And in light of that, there are going to have to be some future changes to the way we practice business. Simply removing the names and logos from the sides of the vehicle and pushing them into an unrestricted marketplace is not enough for we are potentially creating problems for the legitimacy of the vehicles that we use every day. The examples that we have seen around the world will hopefully never appear on our shores, but like history has taught us, only time will tell.  In the meantime, as a profession, we must seek protections to ensure that our retired vehicles are used appropriately. We must establish and accept standards on what decommissioning these vehicles means, so that in as much as is possible, they no longer appear as legitimate ambulances. EMS must be proactive with this effort so as to protect the authority and respect that our bonafide vehicles need in order to best serve our communities without fear.

Jonathan Olson is the chief of operations for Wake County Emergency Medical Services and assistant fire chief with the Wendell Fire Department. He is a graduate of the NFA Executive Fire Officer program, has over 25 years of experience in EMS and fire operations, and is a co-author of “Management of Ambulance Services” by NEMSMA.
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