Ambulance chassis shortage affecting Montana agencies

Posted at 6:23 PM, Sep 22, 2023

HELENA — Ambulances can pick up a lot of miles working in Montana, and emergency responders say that can mean big maintenance requirements as a vehicle ages. Now, though, some agencies are having to stick with what they have while they wait for new ambulances to be available.

This week, Scripps News reported on the ongoing impacts of a nationwide shortage in ambulance chassis – the engine and frame of an ambulance, which come from automakers like Ford and General Motors. Ambulance manufacturers assemble the “box” – the rear part of the ambulance with the emergency equipment – on top of the chassis.

Missoula Emergency Services gets its ambulances from a company in Iowa. Manager Don Whalen told MTN the company said the shortage of chassis has delayed them from completing orders.

“We ordered one last year, and we were just notified – just over a year now – that our chassis did come in,” he said.

Whalen says Missoula Emergency Services now answers calls as far away as Philipsburg – and sometimes even in parts of Idaho.

“Ambulances really get some pretty rough, tough miles put on them; it's not uncommon to be on any of the mountains around here with them,” he said. “So they're rode pretty hard, to be honest with you.”

He said they maintain a fleet of “frontline” ambulances that are used for everyday emergency service. When an ambulance reaches 150,000 to 180,000 miles on the road, they retire it from full-time use and keep it as a backup and for service at things like sporting events. However, the one they’re set to replace next is already over 200,000 miles.

“A piece of mechanical equipment, you never know when it's going to break down,” said Whalen. “But when you get higher mileage rigs, your chances of breaking down are much greater than they are when they’re new rigs still under warranty.”

Whalen is also president of the Montana Ambulance Association, which he says represents about 30 or 40 private ambulance services around the state. He says he’s hearing similar issues from a number of those services.

“It's still basically the same supply chain for all of us, and that's where the issue lies,” he said.

Whalen says they hope to have their new ambulance from the manufacturer and on the roads by the end of this year. In the meantime, he says they’re placing an order for their next replacement early.

“We need to order it a year or two in advance now,” he said.