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Faulty Navistar Engines Have EMS Operators Fuming

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The engine powering most of the nation s ambulances is in poorer health than the passengers they transport, emergency medical officials in Tennessee and Georgia said.

Under the hood of these ambulances is a 6-liter diesel engine that emergency service workers said spends more time in the shop than on the street.

It directly affects the emergency preparedness of the ambulances, said John Clines, maintenance supervisor for the Bradley County, Tenn., Emergency Medical Service. How do I keep my ambulances going for the public?

Mr. Clines said six of the 11 ambulances in his fleet are equipped with the engine, which Ford admits has a history of malfunctioning.

The American maker is suing engine maker Navistar International over warranty costs, said Kristen Kinley, spokeswoman at Ford s Detroit headquarters.

She said 90 percent of the nation s ambulances are equipped with the 6-liter engine.

We are addressing it, so I think that is probably more important than how pervasive it is, Ms. Kinley said. She declined to say how much money Ford has incurred in warranty costs from the ambulance engines.

The legal tug-of-war had halted production, but Ms. Kinley said that has resumed and that the older engines can be repaired.

Navistar spokesman Roy Wiley also said the engine issues are long resolved despite the ongoing litigation with Ford.

Emergency service operators said repeated maintenance hasn t made the trucks trustworthy, though. They said engine problems haven t caused patient transfer delays because they have back-up vehicles to use while the 6-liter engines are being repaired.

But Hutcheson Medical Service ambulance director Scott Radeker said it will eventually cost patients more. He said the two 6-liter trucks in his 12-ambulance fleet have cost $50,000 in unscheduled maintenance since they were bought in 2004.

We live and die by the calculator now, said Mr. Radeker, whose ambulance operation serves Dade, Walker and Catoosa counties in Northwest Georgia.

Most ambulances have a 100,000-mile warranty, officials said. Because of that, Mr. Clines said it s hard to estimate how much the additional maintenance has drained from Bradley County s coffers.

It s not the money, yet; it s that I ve lost a front-line ambulance that will be out of service for six weeks, Mr. Clines said.

Whitfield County, Ga., ambulance director Rick Cobb said his staff is developing a report on problems with the 6-liter engine.

Issues range from a lack of power to injector problems, area officials said.

Bruce Collins owns Smoky Mountain Specialty Vehicles in Athens, Tenn., and does maintenance work on ambulances for Monroe, Morgan, Polk, McMinn and Rhea counties.

Mr. Collins said common problems have included cracked head gaskets, diesel fuel seeping into the cooling system and faulty wiring harnesses.

They are a pain, he said.

Mr. Collins also sells ambulances, and he said more companies are switching to Chevrolet vehicles.

Daryle Cochran, ambulance director in Rhea County, Tenn., said the 7.3-liter engines used before 2004 were more reliable. He said an older ambulance in his fleet with 200,000 miles has never had a bolt turned on it.

But Mr. Cochran said one new ambulance with a 6-liter engine needs a new transmission after being driven 249 miles. The check engine light activated on another ambulance with 1,600 miles, he said.

It s like that game Operation, Mr. Cochran said. Every time you touch one thing, something else gets mad and lights up.

E-mail Ryan Harris at rharris@timesfreepress.com

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