The ‘Swiss Army knife’ of EMS vehicles

Customized truck assists Special Operations Response Team with challenging and diverse missions
June 7, 2016
UCHealth’s PVH EMS Manager and Operations Chief Braden Applegate shows off the inside of EMS’ Special Operations Response Team vehicle.

From swift-water and backcountry rescue missions to accompanying SWAT calls and high-risk arrests, Poudre Valley Hospital EMS Special Operations Response Team couldn’t find a four-wheel drive vehicle that was up to the challenge. So they created one.

“We have unique needs, and our new vehicle is the product of the design expertise of our EMS (emergency medical services) operators and our veteran mechanic,” said Braden Applegate, PVH EMS operations chief and SORT manager.

Sean Jennings, PVH EMS fleet mechanic coordinator, is more than an experienced mechanic. He served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps and two years with the U.S. Department of Defense, followed by mechanic work in the private sector. His experience with military troop carriers with backboard transport capabilities gave him a model to design SORT’s new special operations vehicle.

Through community partnerships, PVH EMS provides more than just ambulance services in areas of northern Colorado. Almost two decades ago, SORT formed when PVH EMS partnered with the Fort Collins Police Department to provide medic assistance for high-risk warrant and SWAT calls. Eight years ago, SORT medics began specialized bomb training to support the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad. Two years later, SORT medics added dive- and swift-water rescue capabilities, and at the same time, Poudre Fire Authority asked the SORT team to help with Larimer County Search and Rescue calls.

“From the beginning we have been unique,” Applegate said.

mechanic crew
PVH EMS employees, from left, Fleet Maintenance Coordinator Sean Jennings, vehicle technicians John Betz and James Glendenning, and contracted certified welder and fabricator Izaak Spaulding, spent more than 200 man hours customizing the new truck for EMS’ Special Operations Response Team.

On the outside, the SORT truck looks like any four-wheel drive vehicle with a topper — its plain exterior a concealment tactic for law enforcement calls. It’s what is inside the vehicle that makes it distinctive. The vehicle has been rewired so that it is equipped with hidden emergency lights and sirens. The truck bed and topper are framed with schedule 40 pipes to protect passengers — which could be a handful of rescuers headed to a site or a patient being transported out of the wilderness.

“You can’t just put a bunch of people in the back of a truck with a topper,” Jennings said. “The roll cage provides the safety needed for it to be a versatile vehicle.”

The back end is set with two benches with padding and seat belts for rescuer transport. The pads can be removed to fit a patient backboard, and between the two benches, a transport cage used for vertical rescues fits perfectly.

Being able to transport rescuers was an important feature. Because the truck can hold 16 people, fewer vehicles end up at what can be an already limited access rescue location, Applegate said.

“The vehicle replaces the need for multiple vehicles and puts all the gear in one place,” Jennings said. “These [SORT] members can now go from a search and rescue call to a high-risk SWAT call and then to dive training if needed.”

In its first three weeks in commission, the SORT truck assisted in two SWAT calls and responded to the season’s first rescue on Horsetooth Mountain Open Space Trailhead near Fort Collins when a 20-something male got stuck on a ledge 50 feet above Horsetooth Falls.

Welding truck
UCHealth PVH EMS vehicle technician John Betz welds together a customized roll bar for the PVH EMS SORT truck.

Each day, the truck is checked out by one member of the SORT team, who is then on call for 24 hours. The gear for the responders takes a majority of the back seat.

Each SORT member has a vest that holds medical supplies, along with a backpack that attaches for additional supplies. They have four types of helmets for different situations, such as a swift-water rescue or ballistics call. They have a flame-retardant jumpsuit for automobile accidents and a gas mask.

Add that gear to the supplies already stocked in the truck — oxygen, pediatric supplies, extra trauma kits, climbing rope and a whitewater life jacket — and the vehicle is ready for almost anything.

“The truck is a purposefully built special operations’ Swiss Army knife,” Jennings said.

UCHealth’s PVH EMS Manager and Operations Chief Braden Applegate holds up the jumpsuit that EMS’ Special Operations Response Team members wear for certain calls, such as vehicle accidents.

The customized truck took more than 200 in-house man hours to build, Jennings said, and the crew worked on the vehicle while also maintaining a fleet of about 40 ambulances and emergency vehicles for PVH EMS, Front Range Fire and Windsor Severance Fire.

Applegate said his team is very excited about the new vehicle, as it shows their continued commitment to the services they provide to the community and dedication to growing and expanding partnerships to provide services.

“A lot of EMS services don’t have these capabilities, and it came to us by way of the relationships we have with the local law enforcement and PFA,” Applegate said. “It really is a remarkable collaboration and a model we hope to expand.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.