Kenai gets approval to upgrade equipment

Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Though making use of an ambulance is not usually something to look forward to, if someone does find themself in need of a quick trip to the hospital from Kenai in the future, they may enjoy a ride in style in a shiny new vehicle.

The Kenai Fire Department is buying a brand-new Ford F-450 ambulance equipped with fancy new bells and whistles literally and figuratively speaking.

The rig will come equipped with an Opticom emitter, which will allow it to get through stop lights with greater ease.

When Kenai stoplights were last upgraded, they were fitted with Opticom receivers that create a four-way stop situation in the intersection when triggered by the emitter devices in emergency vehicles needing to pass through.

Central Emergency Services vehicles and emergency vehicles in Nikiski have Opticom emitters on board, but Kenai's new ambulance will be the first vehicle in the city with them.

"They're a definite safety feature," said Fire Chief Scott Walden.

The vehicle will have another claim to fame over the city's current two ambulances, as well: four-wheel drive.

When Walden was coming up with a cost estimate for the new vehicle he nixed the four-wheel-drive option in the interest of saving the city money. When the purchase came before the city council for its approval Aug. 20, however, it voted to reinstate the feature.

"We do live in Kenai, Alaska. I'm convinced we need it to have four wheel-drive," said council member Jim Bookey. "I don't want to see an ambulance go out to Beaver Loop and get stuck with a heart-attack patient without four-wheel-drive and not be able to get in and out."

Adding four-wheel-drive to the specifications of the ambulance bumped the cost of the vehicle up from $126,590 to about $130,000. Although the city is facing a financial crunch and a deficit budget, the council decided this was not a corner to cut.

"The city is not in that dire need of cash that we can overlook this," Bookey said.

Another bonus of the new vehicle is that it is modular, Walden said, meaning the chassis and box can be replaced separately in case a problem develops with just one part.

The department was able to save some money on the ambulance by piggybacking its purchase along with a CES bid for a new vehicle, so they got a multivehicle discount. Since the vehicle will replace a fully-equipped ambulance, the department can move that equipment into the new one and save money by not having to buy more. Walden said the department is applying for several state and federal grants, as well, that hopefully will reimburse the city for at least some of the cost of the vehicle.

The funds for the ambulance are coming out of the city's equipment replacement fund, which was set up to absorb the cost of large purchases so the money wouldn't have to come directly out of the city's general fund operating budget. The fire department will be responsible for reimbursing the replacement fund with annual payments from its budget over the life of the vehicle, which is estimated at 20 years.

All city departments were required to tighten their belts this year to help combat the city's budget deficit, so the reimbursement payments have the potential to be a burden to the fire department.

"We cut about as far as we can cut," Walden said, mentioning the department decreased its fuel allotment and has altered its shift schedules to cut down on overtime costs. "... If (our budget) were to be cut again next year, then I've got to start cutting more vital things."

Though he said he would like to put the new ambulance purchase off for another year, one of the department's two existing ambulances is nearing the end of its usefulness. The ambulance was delivered in 1988 and has about 100,000 miles on it, not counting the extra wear-and-tear that comes from cold starts and the extra hours of idling that can happen during an emergency call.

Walden said there aren't any existing mechanical problems with the vehicle and that the city's maintenance department has done a good job keeping it in good working order, but it is getting hard to find replacement parts for it and 15 years of service do take their toll.

"Ultimately (we're replacing it) because it's been used in the manner it's been designed for," Walden said. "It's had heavy use. It's getting to be where it's tired."

That doesn't mean the department is under-equipped until the new replacement gets here, however.

"We want people to know that we are operating with two ambulances," Walden said. "They should feel comfortable calling us. The urgency (in getting a new one) is the seven-month delay in ordering this. ... (Kenai does) have good service 24 hours a day, and that will continue."

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