The La Grande Fire Department has upgraded its ambulance fleet.

The department’s new 2019 Chevrolet model Medic 2 ambulance debuted last week and has already been put to use, concluding a year-long process to bring the new unit to town.

“This process started with interim chief Emmitt Cornford. He and City Manager Robert Strope got together and talked about (the department’s) major needs. The need at the time was replacing an ambulance,” La Grande Fire Chief Les Thomas said.

Strope and Cornford met while the city was building its budget for 2018-19 early last year.

“The city has an ending cash balance, and one of the things we take a look at each year is capital expenditures we have and what we can include in the budget,” Strope explained.

Strope said that when the fire department initially brought forth its budget, it didn’t include the cost for a new ambulance. The talks about the needs for the department followed, and it was determined that an ambulance was a justifiable expense.

“We included funding to purchase a new ambulance,” Strope said of the 2018-19 city budget.

Of the $180,000 budgeted for the new ambulance, $135,000 was from the capital expenditures fund. The remaining $45,000 came from money that had been set aside in previous years and earmarked for fire services.

Thomas said when he took over in June of 2018 as fire chief, he knew the $180,000 for the ambulance was in the budget. The process, he said, then went into deciding on the necessary specifics, bidding and getting the ambulance built. He added the department sought a balance “between being fiscally responsible and conservative” while also ensuring the vehicle met the department’s needs.

“It has to be four-wheel drive because of our weather,” Thomas said. “It has to have enough space obviously for the occupants and then enough room to give the utmost care (to patients).”

The department was able to keep the new purchase under budget, with Thomas saying the cost was about $168,000. They saved tens of thousands of dollars by transferring and recertifying equipment from the old Medic 2, including the electric lift stretcher system, monitors and intravenous pumps. He added that the maintenance plan already in place for the medical equipment was able to “briefly” extend their window of use.

“(The lift system) alone is $58,000,” Thomas said. “We were able to use the one from our previous ambulance and were able to have it serviced and recertified. We saved money there.”

The new ambulance, built by Braun Northwest — a Chehalis, Washington, company that manufactures emergency vehicles — replaced the 1996 model that was still in the fleet from when the department took over the transport service from the hospital.

“It was in reserve status. You had to put money into it every year,” Thomas said of the old Medic 2.

The oldest of the remaining
ambulances, Medic 4, a 2006 model, has been moved to reserve status.

“If we run out of ambulances or have one break, we move (Medic 4) from reserve status up,” Thomas explained. “We’ve been generally running several days with two or three ambulance calls at the same time. You have to have the reserve fleet in case you have an issue.”

Mechanical issues are an item Thomas said the department hasn’t faced often in his time as chief, recalling just one instance last fall, and he credited the work of firefighter Craig Gomes for his efforts in maintaining the fleet.

“He is very adept at making sure the vehicles are maintenanced regularly. He helps us out tremendously with any of the minor maintenance issues up to some of the major issues (before) we have to send it off to a specialist,” Thomas said.

The chief said, however, that breakdowns have happened in the past and are inevitable due to the wear and tear the emergency vehicles accumulate. The LGFD shares a 2,000-square-mile county with Elgin and Union as the other EMS partners.

“Eventually something is going to break,” he said, pointing out the vehicles are often driven in a way and with a frequency that causes more wear and tear. “Your car doesn’t break down as often because you don’t drive it like that 365 days a year.”

In the event of a breakdown while on call, Thomas said, the training of the medical responders is focused on patient care until another ambulance arrives, though he added a driver will look to see if the repair can be done quickly.

“We are equipped and educated to where we can hold our own in the ambulance as long as we need to within reason. It’s not a hospital and not an emergency room, but we stabilize (the patient) as much as we can,” he said.

Thomas’ hope is to bring in a new ambulance every three to five years to keep upgrading what he called an “aging” fleet. While mileage is not the primary factor in determining when to replace a vehicle, he noted that one of the ambulances, the 2006 GMC reserve vehicle, has nearly 200,000 miles on it and a second has more than 100,000. The new ambulance, by comparison, had less than 700 miles on it as of late Wednesday afternoon. The other two ambulances in rotation are 2012 and 2015 Fords.

“It’s not based on the mileage as much as on the actual repair cost (and) wear and tear on the vehicle itself. If you keep putting money into an ambulance over and over again, that’s the money you could have put into replacing it,” he said.

The fire chief said the city has been supportive in getting the department what it needs while remaining within budget.

“Mr. Strope is really good with his guidance on (saying), ‘This is what I foresee. What can you do within these parameters?’” Thomas said.