Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

While it hasn’t been in service very long, Del Norte Ambulance has added a new ambulance to its fleet that is different from anything else in the area.

Unit 23, the bariatric ambulance, is fitted with special equipment that allows two responders to package, lift and transport patients too heavy or large for a standard ambulance.

Ron Sandler, CEO and paramedic at DNA, said there has been a need for such a vehicle for some time.

“I belong to the advisory committee for Humboldt/Del Norte and for months, maybe even years, we have been talking about how much we needed this,” Sandler said. “I was talking to the owner of Metro West (Ambulance) and he says, ‘I have an extra one in my yard, do you want to take it off my hands?’”

Sandler said Del Norte Ambulance had been talking to another company, but since the timing was right, the offer was accepted.

What it does

For one operator, it takes a few minutes to install a brace plate on the floor, unfold and attach the ramps to the rear of the ambulance and position the gurney.

At its full height, the gurney can carry an 800-pound patient. Lowered, it can hold up to 1600 pounds.

The heaviest human ever recorded was Jon Minnoch, who died in 1983 at 1,400 pounds.

A cable attaches to the gurney and a second operator winches it into the ambulance while the first steadies it with special reinforced handles. If two people work together to set up the ramps, the time is reduced.

Once the patient is inside the ambulance, guide bars on the floor roll the gurney into position before it’s locked in place to prevent movement during transport.

Sandler said the system is a lot easier for the ambulance personnel to use for transporting heavy patients and a lot more comfortable for them.

He said Unit 23 can also perform regular ambulance functions, and can carry two patients when used as a regular ambulance.

When asked, Sandler said about one percent of calls in the region are for a patient heavy enough to warrant it. However, firefighters are often called in to assist with lifting a heavy patient, so the new unit will likely reduce those calls.

Sandler said he has heard stories of how patients required an auto shop engine lift to be brought to the scene. Using the lift and a tarp sling, the patient was lifted onto the floor of an ambulance, then off again at the hospital, he said.

“In the time it took them to do that, this (unit) could be all the way to Humboldt,” he said.

Sandler said in emergency situations where fire personnel are on hand, they can help fold up the ramps and store them while ambulance personnel are tending to the patient.

“They can almost work like a pit crew out there,” he said. “They may just grab the ramps, throw them in the back of their truck and have it follow us to the hospital.”

Only crews trained in its use may operate the ambulance as a bariatric ambulance.

What it cost

He said the cost of the gurney is about $6,000 to $8,000, which is about the same as a standard ambulance gurney. Aside from the weight limits, another major difference is that a typical gurney can fold into an upright seating position and back to a flat gurney. Those gurneys are rated to 700 pounds, but physical size is more of an issue in deciding which ambulance to use, he said. The winch and conversion system for the bariatric ambulance added about $8,000 to $9,000 to the cost.

Del Norte Ambulance is currently using the ambulance on an agreement with Metro West, to determine the unit’s effectiveness and need. He said a similarly-equipped new unit would cost about $150,000 and a used unit can be bought for about $90,000.

The Chassis is a 2005 Ford Super-Duty, but Sandler said it’s used much less than the other units, and is regularly maintained along with the others.

With a recent California Highway Patrol inspection and the application of identifying decals, the new unit is certified and ready to roll. It’s been in service a couple weeks.

DNA General Manager John Pritchett said the company employs 25 people, 19 of whom work directly on the ambulances.

Del Norte Ambulance is a private company, contracted by the county, and a member of the American Ambulance Association. It covers the entire county and Pelican Bay State Prison.

Sandler said Unit 23 may be sent to areas as far as Eugene and the Bay Area if needed, but only if the ambulance and trained personnel are available.

“Our first priority is here,” he said.