Mecklenburg EMS Agency (Medic) is the EMS provider for all 540 square miles of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina including the city of Charlotte. The Agency has a fleet of 72 ambulances, 64 of which provide ALS coverage while the other 8 are dedicated to non-emergency transports.
Two years ago Medic began transitioning its ALS fleet to ambulances built on the Dodge 5500 chassis. Thirty such vehicles have already been introduced into the system; the remaining 34 vehicles date back to model year 2012 and are built on the Terra Star chassis by Navistar.
Last year Medic started to notice a trend developing among the agency’s older Terra Star chassis. Engine issues were increasing in frequency and common themes were developing. When two engines from vehicles purchased in the same model year required premature replacement within months of each other, it was apparent something was very wrong.
It didn’t take much research to find a number of articles depicting issues being experienced by customers operating chassis manufactured by Navistar. The issues all seemed to stem from what was deemed to be a faulty emissions system design. The more research done by the agency’s Fleet Supervisor, the more familiar stories popped up about defective diesel particulate filters, fuel in the engine oil, broken rocker arms, and failed compression tests.
Medic’s fleet department consists of five master mechanics, each of which has thousands of hours of experience maintaining and repairing Terra Star chassis. When the research was shared with the team, they quickly realized that the issues Medic was experiencing weren’t unique to the Agency’s vehicles and something had to be done before vehicle reliability became an issue.
Conversations initially started with the local service provider, Rush Truck Center in Charlotte, who also sold Medic the majority of their Terra Star chassis. Progress was slow, with little acknowledgment that there was a systemic issue with the engines. Late last year a meeting was finally arranged at Rush that included a Senior Product Support Consultant from Navistar. In that meeting it was finally acknowledged that the engines were indeed an issue and significant steps would be necessary to improve reliability of the Agency’s fleet.
Medic was offered a program comprised of three main components. First, every one of Medic’s Terra Star chassis would undergo a comprehensive evaluation at Rush’s facility.
Second, any necessary repairs would be made to each vehicle at Navistar’s expense, up to and including engine replacement.
Third, each engine would be recalibrated to change the idle settings, which in effect would help clean the diesel particulate filter more often – which is better for overall engine performance and reliability. Medic would control the order in which vehicles underwent this process, and it was up to Rush and Navistar to keep the process moving at an acceptable pace.
Medic leadership took this offer under advisement and weighed it against the alternatives. For starters, several law suits had already been levied against Navistar for similar engine issues by companies across the country, many of which have been consolidated into one class action suit still awaiting litigation in Illinois.
Litigation was certainly an option, but it was not one that came with any guarantees. It also didn’t address the Agency’s most pressing need, which was to improve the reliability of the Agency’s fleet for the foreseeable future. Taking Navistar to court would almost certainly remove the repair option from consideration, leaving Medic to find a pathway to replace as many as a dozen ambulances in a few short months at a very high price tag. That decision would not be in the best interests of the patients or citizens that Medic serves in Mecklenburg County. It is for these reasons that Agency leadership decided to pursue Navistar’s offer.
Vehicle assessments began earlier this year and eight engines have been replaced thus far, all at Navistar’s expense. All isn’t perfect with the arrangement, however. The time required from initial assessment to engine replacement has averaged more than thirty days. This must improve for the program to be effective and Medic’s leadership is pushing Rush and Navistar to make significant improvement. If this occurs, the current pathway will continue to be followed. If not, alternative options will be re-evaluated.
Medic’s team of mechanics continue to work wonders each and every day to maintain the Agency’s fleet and produce enough vehicles to meet the demands of the system. As is the case with any ambulance fleet that travels 2.8 million miles per year, vehicle issues have occurred in the field; retrospective review of these cases evidenced that none had a negative impact on patient care.
Medic does have eight ambulances budgeted for replacement this fiscal year, but they won’t be placed into service until January. In the interim, Medic leadership will continue to manage communication with Agency stakeholders and County Board Members while pressing Rush and Navistar to turn engine replacements as quickly as possible.