Austin's Ambulances Go Green


Environmentally friendly ambulances: That's the goal of Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (ATCEMS) in Texas. This is why the agency is installing twin solar panels on its new ambulances, so they can operate on battery power after delivering patients to hospitals.

Typically, patient transfers can take up to 30 minutes, during which times traditional ambulances have to keep their engines running to maintain communications and refrigeration. But thanks to the ongoing charging provided by solar panels, ATCEMS' ambulances will be able to turn off their engines during these waits.

"The two solar panels on the ambulance roofs provide 10 amps of power," says ATCEMS Assistant EMS Director James Shamard. "That's more than enough power to run in bright sunlight, and sufficient for overcast conditions." To date, the agency has obtained two solar-powered ambulances on Ford F-450 platforms, ordered five more, and plans to get a further nine.

The F-450 is a new platform for ATCEMS, which had been using International medium-duty chassis. By moving to the lighter-weight F-450, ATCEMS will be reducing both CO2 and NOX emissions. According to its data, an F-450 ambulance gets 4.9 miles to the gallon, compared to the heavier International's 3.9 mpg. Not running the F-450s while on standby will likely save 560 gallons of fuel a year, or about $4,000 per ambulance annually. In other words, a solar panel-equipped F-450 gets 5.9 mpg.

"There's a lot to be said for the F-450 platform," Shamard says. "It provides a more comfortable ride in the back than the International does, and has more functional workspace."

ATCEMS has also purchased some ambulances based on the lightweight Sprinter platform. "These units, which are even easier on fuel, are meant for the many outdoor events that take place here in Austin," Shamard says. "Patients who are treated by such ambulances are always removed by other units for transport, Thus, there is no reason to use a regular-sized ambulance where we don't need to carry extra equipment like turnout gear and ballistics vests."

The green ambulances are part of a larger trend in Austin. The City is already using biodiesel to power many of its fire/EMS trucks, and has about 200 hybrid (electric/gasoline) vehicles in its fleet. The move is good for the environment, and also helps the city deal with rising fuel costs. Most important, the results delivered are substantial. They include an overall 47% improvement in mpg performance, the potential to save up to $160,0000 annually on total fleet fuel costs, and 31.2% reduction in ambulance C02; down by 14.2 metric tons of CO2 a year.

"As a city, we are serious about reducing our carbon footprint," Shamard says. "Our new ambulances are a step in that direction."

James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.