Hybrids Could be the Future for Greener EMS Vehicles: Two-Year Study Suggests Replacement for Traditional SUVs

Seth Hawkins, MD

November 19, 2008

Morganton, NC

A two-year study in North Carolina exploring mid-size gasoline-electric hybrids as alternatives to traditional EMS vehicles is receiving national attention.

Seth Hawkins, MD, recently completed the study that appeared in the July issue of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS), a national publication specializing in out-of-hospital medical care. Dr. Hawkins is an EMS physician with Burke County EMS and the EMS Coordinator for Blue Ridge HealthCare, a community-based hospital system in Burke County, NC.

"Public agencies like EMS operate on tight budgets and yet are obligated to keep vehicles on the road every day of the year. This makes fuel efficiency and the rising cost of gasoline particularly important issues for them," Dr. Hawkins said.

To add to the pressure, President Bush recently directed public agencies to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. "This gives EMS agencies both economic and political reasons to explore high efficiency, low pollution vehicles, in addition to the obvious environmental benefits."

Hawkins' study used a commercially available partial zero emission Ford Escape Hybrid as a part-time Quick Response Vehicle (QRV). QRVs are EMS vehicles, usually SUVs or trucks, which transport personnel and equipment but not patients. The study vehicle was equipped with standard emergency response equipment and used for EMS activities and other out-of-hospital medical operations.

The study provided answers to many concerns among EMS professionals that have discouraged the use of mid-size hybrid vehicles:

  • A hybrid engine can withstand the demands of emergency QRV driving with similar reliability to other EMS vehicles now in service.

  • A mid-size hybrid QRV had the engine power needed to respond quickly to emergencies.

  • A hybrid gasoline-electric engine offers enough electrical power to run lights and sirens.

The most significant challenges in using the mid-size hybrid were smaller carrying and towing capacity.

Based on published specifications, a hybrid QRV could cut both fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% when compared to standard QRV models. The study vehicle was also substantially quieter than current QRVs, helpful both for emergency scene management and for overall noise pollution in a community. Even the initial purchase cost is less than standard QRV models.

"EMS agencies must begin considering the environmental and economic effects of their vehicle's fuel efficiency," says Professor Keith Wells, a faculty member at Western Carolina University's Emergency Medical Care program. "Hawkins' research represents an important step in the development of more economically and environmentally sound EMS practices."

The JEMS article also suggests exploring alternative fuel sources (such as biodiesel) and alternative engines (such as full electrical engines) for EMS vehicles.

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