EMS Southwest goes green in Greene

May 10, 2014
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Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
Jason Beal, assistant director of operations for EMS Southwest, fills a propane-converted ambulance in Waynesburg. Order a Print
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Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
Rob Bowman, director of operations for EMS Southwest Ambulance, turns on a propane fueling station pump. Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – Covering the 578 square miles that comprise Greene County just became more cost effective for EMS Southwest Ambulance Service through the conversion of multiple ambulances and wheelchair vans to a liquid propane/gasoline fuel system.

The benefits include a cleaner running vehicle (propane vehicles emit 12 percent less carbon dioxide, 20 percent less nitrogen oxide, and up to 60 percent less carbon monoxide), extended vehicle life and lower maintenance costs. The conversions, which were initiated last fall and still ongoing, were made possible through a Department of Environmental Protection Alternative Fuels Incentive grant (AFIG).

“It (the vehicle) starts on gas. When the engine reaches 140 degrees, it automatically switches over to propane. The driver doesn’t have to do anything, the computer does all of the switching,” said Rob Bowman, director of operations for EMS Southwest. “When the propane runs out, it automatically switches over to gas. We wanted a system that was simple so we knew it would be used.”

Liquid propane will replace 17,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 3,500 gallons of gasoline purchased annually by EMS Southwest, Bowman said.

“Fuel is one of our largest budget items next to payroll. We average 2,300 miles per month on an ambulance. That is 276,000 miles on the fleet per year,” he said. “From everything we’ve seen so far it has gotten better mileage on the propane.”

One small lighted button on the dash lets the driver know how much propane is left in the tank. By pushing the button the system reverts to gasoline. Two 1,000-gallon liquid fuel tanks, installed at the Waynesburg location of EMS Southwest, will be used by ambulance personnel to fill up. A filling station will be installed at the Carmichaels EMS Southwest location when the company makes the change to entirely propane-operated vehicles, according to Bowman.

“The tanks are completely safe. We built a barrier around them so a vehicle would not be able to drive into them. The electric starter is inside the garage so there is no chance for a spark,” Bowman said. “The kill switch is on our building and there are multiple safety features built in.”

The $24,600 grant has enabled three ambulances to be converted and a fourth ambulances and two wheelchair vans will be converted by June 2015 when the grant runs out. A second funding cycle will become available about that time, Bowman said.

There isn’t a skip or miss in the engine when the propane kicks in so the ambulance crew doesn’t feel the change, Bowman said, but they do hear it, or more accurately, don’t hear it.

“With diesels, when we’d pull up to a drive-thru window (for fast food) they’d ask us to shut the engine off so they could hear us,” said Jason Beal, assistant director of operations for EMS Southwest. “We had driven diesels for so many years that when we came to a stop sign he (Bowman) thought it (the propane powered ambulance) had stalled.”

Half of the $8,300 per vehicle cost to convert the diesel fueled ambulances and wheelchair vans were reimbursed to EMS Southwest by the AFIG. Bowman and Beal said they learned about the grant from EMS Southwest President David Dernar, who is treasurer of the Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities (PRCC) board. PRCC supports local actions to reduce petroleum use in transportation.

Bowman said the grant was a perfect fit as he and Beal looked for ways to cut costs with Medicare reimbursement rates going down and operating costs rising.

“Our Medicare reimbursement is a fixed rate. When fuel costs went up a couple years ago the trucking companies added a fuel surcharge. We had to eat that cost,” Bowman said. “We aren’t allowed to adjust what we charge. This (the propane conversion) is one way that we can control our costs and provide the exact same services.”

The company plans to convert the existing fleet and purchase all bi-fuel vehicles in the future.

“In addition to the savings we are reducing the amount of fluorocarbon emissions. We’re going green for the environment,” Beal said. “We are taking the ‘e’ off of Greene (County).”

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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