Medicinal purposes

A fleet manager whose charges really do save lives

WHEELSTORIES MICHAEL STAHL

Switch hitters

THE cut-and-thrust of life-saving work would surely take a unique toll on Ambulance NSW’s Sprinter vans, right? “Yep, and our big deal is drivers’ window switches,” says fleet manager Rick Hamilton.

“We spent hours looking at this with Mercedes-Benz, thinking it was a technical issue. But it’s our guys.

They sit there and fidget with them until they don’t work anymore.”

NEXT time you’re rushing through traffic on some mission that’s ‘life or death’, stop and spare a thought for those vehicles on the road – thousands, nationwide – for which that’s literally the case.

Rick Hamilton, 60, fleet manager for the Ambulance Service of NSW, oversees one of the largest ambulance fleets in the world, about 1500 vehicles in total. Two-thirds are of the familiar screaming-siren, stretcherin- the-back kind. The bulk of the remainder are regular sedans and wagons for inspectors or paramedics, covert vehicles, motorcycles, even Ski-Doos for the snowfields.

“At the moment, our primary car is the Mercedes 316, the Sprinter,” Hamilton says.

“We’ve elected to use a four-cylinder model.

Our big deal is not so much speed as just getting there.

“Twenty-odd years ago, prior to the Sprinter, we built a fibreglass box and threw it on the back of a cab-chassis. Because of the cost of manufacturing all the fibreglass, we couldn’t afford to replace them. They would just drive them into the ground.”

Ambulance NSW turns over 300 vehicles each year, replacing them after three years and an average of 100,000km. Emergency Transport Technologies undertakes the comprehensive job of fitting-out the new Sprinters with the myriad electrical gear (lights, sirens, communications) and, of course, the mini-ER in the back.

Only 40-50 of those interior fit-outs each year will be completely new. “We buy a basic Sprinter, metal floor, metal walls, no linings, just a basic shell. Always white. Then we either build it from scratch – all-new cabinetry, linings, floor, everything brand new – or we do what we call a ‘refurb’. We try to make the inside fit-out last through three vehicle rotations, which is every three years.”

The interiors don’t always last that long.

“Some things get a bit bashed around because they’re in the country, or because of violence in the city. It doesn’t happen all that often, but occasionally cars return to their stations and every window’s been kicked out. The crews have silent alarm systems built into the vehicles. What we say to them is, even if you have to jump out of the car and just watch the person inside trash it, that’s how it works.”

Ambulance NSW does its own servicing on the vehicles, but they work closely with Mercedes-Benz. It’s a two-way street; the ambulances’ electrical requirements, for example – electric stretchers, on-board defibrillators, engine heating for cold-climate use – produce useful, extreme-use data.

An ambulance-spec Sprinter has a gross vehicle mass rating of 3550kg, which means it gets stronger brakes, different tyres, heavyduty running gear. It makes those Sprinters a prized asset on the used market. Well, that and other reasons.

“A lot of people will ring up and ask about the service history, where were they used – they want a bit of a story about the car,” Hamilton says. “We’ve had people ring up and ask, ‘how many people have died in this car?’ And another fella said his wife wanted to know how many babies were born in their car.”

Hamilton can’t tell them, of course; they don’t record chassis numbers against births and deaths. Being a clinically trained driver himself, though, Hamilton can at least account for six babies he’s delivered in the backs of ambulances.