Ever hear of Sumner, Iowa? Probably not, as it’s a town of only a few thousand people and the city comprises only 2.5 square miles. But if you were an EMS provider your local rescue squad might recognize Sumner as the home of the company that built your ambulances.
In fact, Life Line Emergency Vehicles has been building Type I and Type III ambulances since 1985, and today is widely regarded as the Cadillac of the industry. It is also the industry’s only ESOP (employee stock ownership employee) company in which its 172 craftsmen collectively hold a 30 percent stake in the privately owned business.
So it’s not surprising that, as David Cole, national sales manager, says, “Life Line makes a handcrafted vehicle that exceeds industry standards for quality. Our people take pride in knowing that they are making vehicles that can literally make the difference in life or death situations. Their commitment and dedication is what has earned Life Line’s reputation as a premier ambulance manufacturer. It’s the number one reason why people nationwide have heard of Sumner – because that’s where their Life Line ambulance was built. Which is why the ESOP was offered about two years ago – the people who put us on the map should share in the recognition and success of their work.”
Life Line markets its vehicles through a network of 20 independent dealers that include 36 regional sales representatives covering 39 states. Sales average 200 vehicles per year with approximately 3,000 vehicles total since its inception in 1985.
“These aren’t dealerships in the sense of car dealers,” Cole points out. “They don’t maintain inventory that’s sitting out on a lot. What actually happens is that the dealer takes a demonstrator model out to the rescue squad location, usually on a weekend, to show the vehicle and its features. Nor is it like a car dealership in that the dealer carries only one manufacturer. The dealer may represent two or three ambulance manufacturers; it might, for example, carry ours as the high-end ambulance and then another manufacturer that’s a little more basic. If the department wants a Life Line ambulance, we will custom build it with the options and specifications available within each of our model lines.”
Ambulances are assembled at the company’s 70,000-squarefoot facility. “We put an ambulance module on top of an OEM truck or van chassis.” Cole explains. “These are classified by federal standards as either Type I or Type III vehicles, depending on the chassis used. Type I vehicles use pickup truck or cab chassis, such as the one used in the Ford F450. Type III vehicles are built on light duty van chassis. Type II is based on passenger/cargo vans, which are used primarily for routine patient transports as opposed to an emergency response. “We stick to the Type I and III vehicles because that’s where most of the market opportunity is.”
Emergency medical services customers can choose from six models that can be customized to their individual needs. The Paraliner is built on either a Ford E350 chassis or a Chevy G3500 chassis, and has a body length of 147 inches. A Type 1 Paraliner is also available in 147-through 167-inch body lengths. The chassis include a Ford F350, F450 or F550, and are available in both two- or four-wheel drive models.
The Highliner series has a 171-inch body length, with options for either a Freightliner M2, Navistar 4300 or 4400, or Chevy C4500 chassis. The Streamliner (slantside) comes in 147-171 inch body lengths, available on any type chassis. A Ford E450, as well as a Chevy G4500 chassis, is the basis for the Superliner series in either 164- or 167-inch body lengths. For the ultimate in custom configuration choices, the Neonatal specialty unit provides for the fullest range of flexibility in designing interiors for transports dedicated to pediatric and intensive care.
THE INDUSTRY’S “CADILLAC”
So what entitles a Life Line ambulance to equate itself as the Cadillac of the industry? Cole cites a number of points of distinction.
“Life Line ambulances use a double insulated floor, built on 10-inch centers, that provides the quietest ride you can get,” Cole says. “Secondly, all four walls of the coach body are built with the thickest available rectangular framing, and the rigid walls are fully insulated for optimum quiet and comfort. We are the only manufacturer to offer proprietary aluminum extrusions that add strength, improve stability and contribute to the quiet comfort of every vehicle we build. Two piece, extruded lower impact rails form the lower structural member of the modular frame to absorb impact, minimize body damage and facilitate easy replacement. We use extruded X-Frame corner posts with reinforcements on either side to provide additional strength; similarly, X-Frame roof extrusions provide additional rollover support for greater safety. Three-inch thick labyrinth style constructed compartment and patient entry doors provide added strength and an airtight seal. Thick outer skins add impact resistance, and all modular body construction is covered by a lifetime warranty. Our five-part, 33-step DuPont paint process ensures lasting paint brilliance and durability; in fact, we provide a non-prorated three-year warranty on the paint job. The exterior compartment linings are all sprayed with elastomeric polyurethane, which is non-porous and permanent to allow for easy cleaning; this scuff- and scratch-resistant surface also complies with all OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) mandated criteria for blood borne pathogens. Last, but not least, are electrical controls and systems are state-of-the-art, designed not only for ease-of-use, but designed to accommodate future expansion and modification.”
Cole also notes that it’s not only customers that recognize the Life Line difference, but the OEMs, as well. “Very few manufacturers are selected to participate in Ford’s Quality Vehicle Modifier program. Life Line has been a longstanding member. Our continued participation reflects Ford’s confidence in our proven track record to maintain the quality and integrity of every vehicle we make.”
In addition, Life Line Emergency Vehicles are tested and certified by Metals and Materials Engineers, one of the industry’s most respected testing agencies. “We were one of the original 12 ambulance manufacturers in the United States to voluntarily submit vehicles for testing. Every Life Line ambulance is designed to fully comply with all federal-designated safety and performance standards.”
Cole concedes that the current economy is causing some emergency medical services providers to put off new capital expenditures. “If they can make do with what they have for the time being, that seems to be the prudent choice these days. But, our dedicated salespersons are still out there making presentations, and if a department needs a vehicle, it needs a vehicle.”
Life Line also does factory manufactured refurbishments and remounts as an affordable alternative to a new vehicle purchase. Cole points out these vehicles can also be customized as needed, and that even while they offer a less expensive alternative, they meet the same high standards for quality and performance as any new Life Line vehicle. “We also do repairs of wrecked ambulances and older units,” Cole adds. “The customer gets a refreshed, restored vehicle that delivers state-of-the-art convenience while meeting every standard, at a much lower expense than the cost of a new vehicle.”
But for a new vehicle purchase, Cole doesn’t feel that Life Line’s high-end value is necessarily a detriment in a tight economy. “You get what you pay for,” he says. “These are long term investments, and these vehicles are in use for hundreds of thousands of miles. You’re going to want something that fits your needs and is going to be of high quality and high durability. You might be saving a few thousand dollars by going with a less expensive vehicle, but the question is what’s that going to cost you over time in terms of reliability, serviceability and general comfort. If you look at it that way, it really isn’t always financially prudent to go with the initial lowercost vehicle.”
The economy notwithstanding, this should be a potential boom buying period because emission standards scheduled to put into effect in 2010 will make new emergency services vehicles significantly more expensive. “Now is the time to buy, if you’re looking to buy a new vehicle in the next couple of years, because after 2010, it’s going to cost you more.”
He adds, “Right now, 99 percent of all ambulances run on diesel. The federal emissions mandates could result in a push back towards gasoline. Back in the 1980s, there were gas-powered ambulances, but they didn’t work real well, particularly when you consider that the nature of how these vehicles are used results in extended times when they are just idling and aren’t going anywhere. But the technology today is much better, both in terms of improved mileage, which reduces costs, and pollution controls. Consequently, I think that after 2010 we’ll be moving more towards gasoline powered vehicles.
Cole says that while these conditions could add some sales momentum, he stresses, “The bottom-line is that there is no substitute for getting in front of the customer. And when we do that, we’re showing them value that pays off in any life saving situation.”