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State Inspection Only Tells Part of the Ambulance Safety Story

Fire officials say Wisconsin ambulance inspection system only looks at one part of the issue, but misses the mechanics of a vehicle, which is what really matters.

A quick glance at 2011 state ambulance inspection reports would indicate there's nothing more serious going on with South Shore Fire Department ambulances than a few blown light bulbs.

And that's part of the problem, SSFD Division Chief Mark Pierce told Patch. Pierce served as the interim chief of the department October 2012 until Chief Robert Stedman started on Monday.

"For what they check, the system is fine," Pierce said. "But it's the mechanicals that make the ambulance go and those aren't being inspected."

More than one inspector needed?

There is only one inspector who travels around Wisconsin checking every ambulance - both municipal and private company - to be sure lights and sirens work, tires have acceptable tread depth and medical supplies are in order. Ambulances are inspected every two years.

"As long as the lights work and the ambulance fires right up, then it passes," Pierce added. "We need more inspectors who can delve more into the maintenance history of the vehicle to be sure it's up to snuff."

When he goes out to do a fire inspection of a nursing home, for example, Pierce said he has a checklist of points he has to cover like documentation showing a schedule of fire drills, when the furnace was last serviced and how often the smoke alarms are tested.

"There's nothing like that being done during the state's inspection," he added.

And that's a problem because in the 10 years since EMT Matt Deicher of Mosinee was paralyzed in an ambulance accident caused by a balding tire, the state's inspection system hasn't changed.

“I flew and hit my face onto the back doors of the ambulance,” Deicher told WISN 12 News.

Deicher was paralyzed. He believes the July 2003 accident could have been prevented "very, very easily."

Just two days earlier, the lone state ambulance inspector gave the Mosinee Fire Department 10 days to replace balding tires on the vehicle. The crew was unaware of the report before the run.

From WISN 12 News: Paralyzed EMT Says Nothing Has Changed

More fuel for the fire?

With all the other issues swirling around the South Shore Fire Department, worrying about state inspection issues are the last thing the department needs.

In February, an ambulance broke down twice while answering a call, making that the fifth incident since the beginning of the year. While the good news is that it wasn't a life-threatening call with lights and sirens, the bad news is that the incident highlighted the need for a more aggressive replacement program.

Interactive: Compare SSFD ambulance fleet to other area departments

The breakdown did not involve the department's oldest ambulance, a 1998 model, but instead was one of a pair of 2005 models that have been trouble from the start.

Still, Pierce told Patch in a survey we sent to department chiefs throughout southeastern Wisconsin that he worries about safety for crews and patients because of the age of the ambulance fleet.

"Safety concerns are primarily worries about age-related breakdowns during use," he wrote.

South Shore fire officials are expecting bids returned to them Monday for a new ambulance. A Mount Pleasant Village Board committee also directed the department to get pricing on two remounts. Remounting includes taking an existing ambulance box — the back portion where patients are typically loaded — and attaching it to a new chassis complete with all new mechanical and wiring. Where a new ambulance can run between $165,000 to $200,000, a remount is significantly less at about $100,000 or so.

A new ambulance has been an approved expense in the budgets of both Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant for the last three years. But, Sturtevant objects to a remount, which means Mount Pleasant would have to foot the bill itself or wait for a consensus, according to the terms of the consolidation agreement. 

There is a joint board meeting with trustees from both villages tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. May 13 at Mount Pleasant Village Hall.

State Inspector: System is ‘Working Rather Well’

Paul Schilling is the state’s lone inspector. Every other year, he performs a half-day, 160-point inspection on every ambulance service provider’s fleet. He puts in serious travel time across the Badger State, and checks both the mechanical and medical equipment on each vehicle.

He told WISN 12 News’ Kent Wainscott that the inspection program is working, and that people shouldn’t be worried that the same guy who kicks the tires is also the one who checks the defibrillators.

“I don't think it should be a concern. I've been doing it for seven years and the process has been great,” Schilling said. “It’s been working rather well.”

Department responsible for maintenance

Caledonia Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Henningfeld agrees the state inspection program needs to be more in-depth.

"There should be a more thorough inspection of the body, chassis and powertrain," he answered in our survey. "All mechanicals should subject to a thorough evaluation against measurable standards."

Pete Feest, an 18-year veteran of the CFD and the department's senior mechanic, said ambulances and fire trucks are not held to the same federal Department of Transportation safety standards as other commercial vehicles like semi-trucks or delivery vans.

"Trucks can be spot-checked to make sure they've had the proper safety inspections, and the driver better have that certificate in the glove box," he said. "But there's isn't any way to hold ambulances to the same level of accountability until something happens."

Each fire department figures maintenance into its annual budget and mechanics like Feest are proactive when issues are discovered.

"I'm taking care of these vehicles to the best of my ability because I'm not going to send any one of them out without being sound," he added. 

Pierce agreed, saying that even if the state implemented stricter inspection standards and hired additional staff, there probably wouldn't be a long list of violations.

"We need more inspectors and more thorough inspections that go beyond lights and medicine," he said. "I think very few departments would grossly fail because our vehicles might be old, but we take good care of them to keep them on the road." 

C. Sanders May 07, 2013 at 11:10 AM
Looks like the State inspection program works. It identified the balding tires on the Mosinee ambulance and gave the Mosinee Fire Department 10 days to replace balding tires on the vehicle. The fact that the Mosinee Fire Department chose to operate a vehicle with balding tires is not an ibdictment of the State Inspection Program. It is an indictment of the negligence of the Mosinee Fire Department.

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