CLINTON- Ambulance service directors across the nation are swapping horror stories about a diesel engine now in most of the country’s ambulances that’s causing persistent problems.

In Tennessee, emergency responses have been delayed, the number of dependable ambulances on standby has been slashed, and maintenance costs have skyrocketed, ambulance directors said.

Ambulances with the engine often are spending more time in the shop than on the road, directors said in interviews last week.

“It’s obviously a nationwide epidemic,” Anderson County Emergency Medical Services Director Robert Byrd told fellow directors during a regional meeting last week in Knoxville.

“In my opinion, this is a public safety issue,” he said. “It needs to be addressed.”

Byrd, chairman of the Tennessee EMS Board, said he plans to put the issue on the agenda for the board’s meeting this month.

“In the 29 years I’ve been in the EMS, I’ve never seen ambulances break down as much as this year,” Byrd said.

Byrd in a letter Friday to Anderson County Mayor Rex Lynch noted that 10 of the county’s 16 ambulances have the troublesome engine.

“Twice now, we have had six ambulances out of service at the same time,” Byrd wrote. “Multiple EMS systems in Tennessee have experienced similar problems.”

Byrd said directors of “two dozen” ambulance systems have contacted him “to discuss the issue.”

Those communications haven’t been just with Tennessee ambulance directors.

The director of Sunstar Paramedics, the Pinellas County, Fla., emergency medical services provider, also outlined his ambulance woes in an e-mail message to Byrd.

“We’ve blown 25 engines out of 64 units which were all bought new in 2004,” Chuck Kearns wrote.

“It’s taken a lot of our fleet time and a lot of money to keep these trucks going to the point where we’re not jeopardizing our community,” Kearns said Friday.

At issue is the 6.0-liter diesel engine built by Navistar International Transportation Corp. and installed in Ford ambulance units.

Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said about 345,000 of the engines were installed in Ford vehicles between 2003 through early 2005.

“That’s the engine of choice for ambulances,” Kinley said. “It’s what most ambulance operators use.”

Kinley estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of the ambulances now in use are equipped with the engine.

She said Ford earlier this year filed a lawsuit against Navistar over the engine.

That was the start of a flurry of lawsuits, with Navistar countersuing and different ambulance agencies filing a class-action lawsuit against Ford.

Ford’s legal action, Kinley said, “is an effort to recoup some of the warranty costs that Navistar has agreed to share with us on the engine.”

A spokesman for Navistar on Monday acknowledged that there were initial problems with the engine.

“Early on, there were some issues when that engine first came out several years ago,” said Navistar spokesman Roy Wiley. “I haven’t really heard of anything recently.”

Wiley said there was “nothing specific” about the 6.0-liter diesel engine that generated complaints.

“It’s a durable engine,” he said.

But Kinley said Ford has launched an effort to correct engine woes, sending out special teams to make engine repairs.

“We have a dedicated team working with fleet operators,” she said. “If we haven’t heard from them, we’d like to know.”

Repairs are being made whether or not the ambulances are still under warranty, Kinley said.

Those warranties cover the first 100,000 miles. Ambulance directors said it’s common for their vehicles to get up to 200,000 miles.

Kinley said most of the 6.0-liter engine gripes center on “making adjustments to the engine wiring harness” and repairing the air intake system.

Ford had the lock on the ambulance business until recently, local EMS directors said.

“Ford was the only one that made an ambulance-prepped package,” said Daryle Cochran, director of Rhea Ambulance Service LLC. “Ford ambulances were all that were recommended.”

That privately owned service has a fleet of eight ambulances to serve Rhea County, he said. Six of those units – including two that haven’t been put in service yet – are equipped with the 6.0-liter engine.

“All four of them (in service) have given me some type of trouble,” Cochran said.

“We’ve got this problem in every location across the country that has this vehicle,” said Tim Suter, EMS director for Rural/Metro in Knox County.

Suter said 20 of the 36 ambulances that Rural/Metro has in its Knox County fleet have the 6.0-liter engine.

“These vehicles spend a lot of time in the shop,” Suter said.

On two occasions, ambulances with the 6.0-liter engine “shut down” during responses to emergencies, Byrd said.

“It did delay response,” Byrd said, “but only for a few minutes because we had to send different ambulances.”

Brad Smith, director of Monroe County Ambulance Service, also said the engines were troublesome.

“We’ve actually had problems walking out to the ambulance and not being able to start it,” said Brad Smith, director of Monroe County Ambulance Service.

That county-run operation has seven ambulances, and four of them are equipped with the 6.0-liter engine. Smith said.

“We’ve had lots of problems with them,” he said. “Anything from injectors to turbos to electrical problems. You name it, we’ve had it.

“We have had them break down while transporting a patient to the hospital. It did delay care when we had to send another ambulance when one didn’t start.”

Rural/Metro has 11 ambulances in Blount County, and three of those units have the 6.0-liter engine, operations manager Ron Parker said.

“I would say for 25 percent of the time, the ambulances with the 6.0 engine, they’re in the shop,” Parker said.

“The air condition compressor just literally flies apart,” he said. “We’ll be in transport and have the air conditioner go out and have to change ambulances.”

Byrd said ambulance departments are being saddled with huge maintenance bills as a result of the engine problems.

He said one ambulance that was just 2,000 miles over warranty cost $13,560 to repair.

Byrd, in his letter to Lynch, recommended that the Anderson County law director “explore our options to recover the massive expenditures we have incurred.”

The uproar also has caused ambulance departments to begin buying other vehicle brands.

In Knox County, for instance, “eight new ambulances are on the way,” Suter said, “and all eight will be GMCs.”

Byrd said Anderson County would also be converting to GMC-made ambulances.

In the meantime, Byrd wrote in the letter to Lynch, “I fully anticipate this problem to continue until our fleet is purged of these engines.

“Obviously at this point our expense will only continue as we attempt to keep these engines in service.”

Bob Fowler, News Sentinel Anderson County editor, may be reached at 865-481-3625.

2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.