The newer of North Riverside’s two ambulances, No. 804 bought in 2009, has just returned to service after a two-week stretch in the repair shop. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

The North Riverside Village Board voted 5-0 on Sept. 7 to approve spending a little more than $174,000 to purchase a new ambulance for the fire department after Fire Chief Bob McDermott said the questionable reliability of the department’s two ambulances had reached “the point of an emergency.”

McDermott in a memo to the village board said that “on multiple occasions the past several months both units were out of service at the same time due to ongoing maintenance issues.”

The problem has become so acute that McDermott has made arrangements with the fire departments in both Berwyn and Forest Park to loan North Riverside an ambulance on a temporary basis if both of the village’s vehicles are unavailable.

In April, he said, Berwyn loaned the village an ambulance, which became North Riverside’s frontline medical response vehicle for 24 hours. Even after one of the village’s ambulances returned to service, the Berwyn ambulance remained at the North Riverside fire station for a few more days as an insurance policy.

“It’ll be a huge relief,” McDermott said of the arrival of the new ambulance sometime during the first half of 2022. “The ability to know when you get in the ambulance that you’ll get out the door and get where you need to be is better for our patients.”

Even with the new ambulance purchase approved, it’ll take months before the new vehicle will be placed into service. With supply chain issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other variables, it can take as long as a full year to build out an ambulance, said McDermott. North Riverside is hoping to take possession of the new vehicle by next May.

The new vehicle will be a 2021 Ford F450 Type III with a traditional combustion engine. McDermott described the new vehicle as a stock unit with some modifications being made to accommodate a power stretcher loading system that the village received via a grant.

“We’ll be able to take [the loading system] off the purchase price and also tweak the ambulance to make it more usable for us,” McDermott said.

Although the issue has come to a head this year, the questionable reliability of the village’s two ambulances has been a concern for more than two years, but the village board had not budgeted funds for a new ambulance, instead hoping for grant funding.

The North Riverside Fire Department garage is seen with fire engines and an ambulance on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in North Riverside, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The village is awaiting word on its latest grant application for ambulance funding, through FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program. Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti said she did not know when FEMA might announce new grant recipients, but Mayor Joseph Mengoni said on Sept. 7 that the village could no longer afford to wait for grant money to appear.

According to Scarpiniti, the village is postponing about $50,000 in scheduled capital projects and redirecting those funds toward the purchase of the new ambulance. She said she is also exploring financing options to see if the village can get good terms on a loan.

If a loan proves too expensive, the balance of the funding will come out of the village’s general operating fund reserve.

If a FEMA grant does come through, Scarpiniti said the village will see if it can retroactively be put toward the ambulance purchase approved on Sept. 7. 

 “Depending on the grant outcome, we will either try to see if this [recently approved ambulance] qualifies under the award if granted or purchase a second one to replace the backup to ensure both ambulances are new,” Scarpiniti told the Landmark in an email. “A future goal of the department is to look at expanding the ambulance services as we look at our manning levels as a whole.”

The newer of the two ambulances in the North Riverside fleet is a 2009 Ford F450, which is diesel powered but has experienced significant maintenance issues. Until late last week, the ambulance was out of service for two weeks while a service station waited for parts to come in to replace a fuel injector, cooling fan and diesel glow plug module.

During that time, the department relied on its backup ambulance, a 2001 Navistar, whose air-conditioning failed during a stretch of 90-degree weather while the Ford was in the shop and needed emergency repairs from the fire department’s mechanic to keep it in service. 

“Our mechanic is great, but he’s not a magician,” McDermott said. “We were fortunate the last time they both went down he was able to fix it.”