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Southwest Ambulance Adds Solar Panels in Fleet


Southwest Ambulance in Mesa, Ariz., recently purchased 40 ambulances in connection with their new regional contracts with the Phoenix-area cities of Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek, as well as Apache Junction Fire Diestrict. Arizona's first Regional Emergency Transportation System is blazing new territory with new technology, too.

During a discussion about how to configure the new ambulances, one issue was the PharmGuard drug boxes. The PharmGuard Medication Safety box has a thermal heat pump that can maintain a 78-degree F temperature for drugs that are supposed to be stored at room temperature. Room temperature in the Phoenix area can be higher than drug manufacturers have in mind when they label their products. In the past, crews placed a couple of ice packs in the drug box. On very hot days, the ice packs might not make it through an entire shift.

Bright Solution
Chris Medrea, market general manager of East Valley operations, was mulling over the issue when he said, "Solar power." After the words were out of his mouth, he realized that harnessing the power of the sun was a viable option since Phoenix, called the Valley of the Sun, averages 296 sunny and partly sunny days each year. 

Medrea, with help from Fleet Manager Rick Rojas, started researching solar panels. They talked to manufacturers and distributors about specs and output. They're experts now, dropping details like 17.7 volts, 135 watts, 7.63 amps, and throwing in Ohm's Law just for the heck of it.

Medrea says they didn't try any models or pilot programs. "There was no reason it wouldn't work," he says. "The only moving part is in the circuit breaker." After all the research, the decision was made: each ambulance would get a single, 135-watt solar panel (manufactured by Kyocera) installed on the roof at a cost of about $1,000.

Medrea characterizes ambulances as energy hogs with all the onboard equipment—including laptops, cell phones, navigation systems, radios and defibrillators—that may continue to draw power from the battery even when the ambulance isn't in service. Most of Southwest's ambulances are parked outside, and the computer-like controller turns on the power from the panels at dawn and turns it off at dusk. With 95% efficiency, the solar power system is a steady source of energy to prevent the "invisible" onboard equipment from draining a battery during periods of inactivity. 

Taylor Made Ambulance in Arkansas attached the solar panels when they were outfitting the new ambulances for Southwest. One of the owners, James Taylor, says this was the first time they have worked with solar panels and it "was a very good experience."

He added, "This is the first practical application of solar power I've seen."

Taylor says his company substituted mounting brackets, replacing the light-duty, aluminum brackets that were standard with the solar panels with something sturdier. The standard brackets might work for attaching panels to the roof of a house, but a panel mounted on top of an ambulance—which not only moves, but sometimes at high speeds—needs to be more robust. 

The first five ambulances to make the trip from Arkansas to Arizona got a surprise endurance test when they went through a storm in Oklahoma with golf-ball sized hail that left dents in the roofs and sides of the vehicles. The solar panels survived unscathed. And they continue to perform. 

Medrea says since the vehicles with solar panels arrived, they no longer have problems with weakened ambulance batteries after a night of maintaining onboard electronic equipment. A worst-case scenario in EMS is climbing into an ambulance in response to a call for "baby not breathing" and finding the battery dead or maybe drawn down just enough that it can't start the vehicle.

Other Examples
Though Southwest is the first ambulance service in Arizona to use solar panels, other agencies are also drawing on solar power to address slightly different issues.

In 2008, the Dial 1298 for Ambulance service in Mumbai, India, conducted a pilot program using roof-top solar panels to boost their batteries supplying power to onboard equipment. A Web story says the solar panels eliminated the need for ambulances to drive around the city solely to keep the vehicles' batteries charged.

The unnecessary driving increased fuel costs for the company, while it also contributed to air pollution in the crowded metropolitan area. Keeping costs down is particularly important to 1298 Ambulance, because it operates on a sliding-fee schedule, providing free services to those who can't afford to pay. In this case, solar panels have the potential to impact service delivery and save lives.

Also in 2008, Sunstar EMS in Pinellas County, Fla., first outfitted its ambulances with solar panels to recharge batteries that run power stretchers, portable ECGs, laptops and cell phones.

Austin-Travis County (Texas) EMS is using roof-mounted solar panels for similar reasons. According to Warren Hassinger, public information manager, the solar power makes a "huge difference in the carbon footprint" of the ambulances. The addition of solar power to the ambulance fleet is right in line with the city of Austin's mandate for more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Existing ambulances were retrofitted with the panels, and all their new vehicles will be outfitted with the panels that "keep the refrigerators going, keep batteries charged and keep ambulances from idling near hospital emergency departments," he says.

The new vehicles are designed with the solar panels fitted into a recess in the roof. "Keeps them from getting caught in low-hanging branches," Hassinger says. Austin has estimated annually saving as much as $4,000 in fuel costs per ambulance.

As energy costs increase and budgets decline, EMS managers are called on to be more creative and innovative. Sunny states, such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, are obvious areas where solar power can be part of a whole energy package. Don't be surprised to find solar power creeping into other parts of the country as well as other segments of EMS. Central Bucks Ambulance and Rescue in Pennsylvania installed solar panels on the side of its station in December.

Although it's hardly the Sunbelt area, the sun does shine just about everywhere. And clever, future-thinking administrators are taking advantage of every opportunity to increase their agency’s efficiency and effectiveness they can find.

Author’s Note: Ziqitza’s positive experience with the pilot ambulance has paid off. After the company won a government contract to operate emergency services throughout Kerala, it had to provide technical specifications for the ambulances to the state government, which purchases the vehicles. Among Ziqitza’s specifications for the first set of 25 ambulances was a solar panel mounted on each roof.

Related Link: http://blog.acumenfund.org/author/chrisawalker2002/



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