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Utah agency converts MRAP for use as ambulance

Utah’s Salt Lake County, an area that encompasses highly congested urban stretches, rural mountain terrain and everything in between, can now provide rescue and medical assistance in any of those areas

By Ron Pierce and Becky Lewis
Tech Beat Magazine

Utah’s Salt Lake County, an area that encompasses highly congested urban stretches, rural mountain terrain and everything in between, can now provide rescue and medical assistance in any of those areas by using its specialized extreme emergency ambulance.

Converted from a surplus mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle obtained through the U.S. Department of Defense 1033 Excess Property Program, the ambulance has been completely demilitarized, and the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake and the Unified Fire Authority of Salt Lake County have no plans to use it for tactical purposes.

“Our tactical element already has vehicles for team movement,” says Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder. “The purpose of this vehicle really is to be able to go into any location, locate victims, get them inside the vehicle and then begin to treat them.”

The Greater Salt Lake Valley encompasses 247 square miles of extremely variable terrain that includes both municipal and unincorporated areas, and is populated by approximately 450,000 people, factors that can combine to create numerous challenges for first responders. Winder explains that in order to prepare the former MRAP for its new purpose, the county removed elements not needed for its civilian application; gave it a new look with a makeover paint job; added an extensive lighting package, a backup camera and beeper; and refurbished the gutted interior with medical equipment.

“The purpose of this vehicle is not to be subtle. It is to be very obvious,” Winder says. “When it arrives at a scene, we want people to recognize it as a rescue vehicle and be drawn to it.”

“Usually, the faster we can get to victims, the better the outcome in a trauma situation,” says Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen. “Getting in as fast as we can, while still keeping our personnel in a safe environment, has been key in developing this partnership with the Unified Police Department. Because of its nature, we can get into areas we’ve never been able to get into before. We’ll be able to get victims out of a warm zone and get them the care they need.”

A warm zone is the area where a potential threat exists, but the threat is not direct or immediate. Examples of this are an unknown location of suspects in a given area already cleared, and an area near, but not directly exposed to, hazardous material from a spill.

“Current emergency operational guidelines do not allow for a normal ambulance or fire truck to enter a warm zone where officers believe the potential for an active threat still exists,” says Mike O’Shea, senior law enforcement program manager at the National Institute of Justice. “This means that injured people might not receive the timely treatment that they might need. This vehicle allows rescuers the ability to enter such an area to retrieve injured people for treatment.”

The two agencies worked together closely to design the vehicle’s new look and equipment package, which includes a complete communications array, two biomedical emergency litters,and cardiac and trauma equipment. When those costs are added to the fee for transporting it from Denver on a flatbed trailer, the total expense to the residents of Salt Lake County came to only around $24,000. That’s in part because local businesses Unique Auto Body, HG2 Emergency Lighting and VLS all donated time and materials to the project. The former MRAP itself cost nothing.

“We recognize that the taxpayers of Salt Lake County have contributed significant funds to support operations abroad, and now the military is decommissioning some of these vehicles for conversion to civilian use,” Winder says. “So why would we not take an essentially free asset and convert it into a civilian function? I think the citizens of this county realize that a $24,000 investment is worth it to save lives.”

Part of converting the vehicle to civilian use involved developing response protocols, which include using regular duty fire personnel, not tactical medical staff, for emergency response, with a firefighter driver as well. Smaller municipal agencies located within the response area may also request access and have developed their own callout procedures.

The two lead agencies also worked together on a planned publicity approach to deal with the misperceptions that often surround the use of former military equipment, an approach that included presentations to specific community groups and area political leaders.

“One of the big mistakes that municipalities often make is to deploy former military equipment without communicating with the community,” Winder says. “This is a piece of equipment that is designed to save citizens’ lives. Once they understand that, I believe they will embrace that and they will appreciate it.”

For more information on Salt Lake County’s conversion project and its use of the emergency ambulance, contact Salt Lake County Sheriff James M. Winder at (385) 468-9901 or United Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen at (801) 743-7200.

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