When an unforeseen event calls for a large-scale evacuation or transport of patients, UPMC’s Special Response Vehicle can help.
The vehicle — also known as an “ambulance bus” — can transport up to 15 non-ambulatory patients at one time. It allows for the mass transport of patients during high-casualty events or other incidents calling for large-scale evacuations. The vehicle can also be configured for many other uses, such as community events, screenings, and other outreach.
The vehicle is one of five ambulance buses in the state of Pennsylvania. Its base is at UPMC Williamsport. But it can also travel to locations throughout all of UPMC’s footprint.
“This was really a community-driven initiative from the mass casualty evacuation standpoint,” says James Slotterback, communications manager, Susquehanna Regional EMS and Prehospital Services. “But also, what we’ve done with it and what it can do is all community-focused.”
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Why Special Response Vehicles Matter
The ability to transport high numbers of patients in potential mass evacuation events is important. The Special Response Vehicle gives UPMC prehospital staff the ability to transport more people at once than with ambulances.
Several prehospital staff based at UPMC in North Central Pa. traveled to Louisiana in 2008 to support communities after Hurricane Gustav. They helped with several mass evacuations from hospitals and long-term care facilities.
When they returned home, they began work to strengthen local UPMC hospital evacuation plans. They realized they lacked adequate transportation resources.
“One of the first things we noticed was that we didn’t have nearly enough transport resources for any type of mass casualty,” Slotterback says. “If we had every ambulance out in the county for a mass casualty, we still would not have nearly enough ambulances.”
In 2015, they began holding mass casualty exercises — and those exercises further showcased the need for more transportation resources. So, Slotterback began to apply for grants to fill the need.
One year, Slotterback traveled to a conference that featured a demonstration ambulance bus. He invited the company that created the ambulance bus to help with UPMC hospital’s next mass casualty exercise in Williamsport.
“We shaved just an incredible amount of time off of getting all the patients transported from the scene to the hospital utilizing the demonstration bus,” he says.
After several years of Slotterback applying for grants, the PPL Foundation awarded him a $100,000 grant to purchase the Special Response Vehicle. The Susquehanna Health Foundation provided the rest of the money for the purchase, and the North Central Health Care Coalition provided funding to equip the bus.
What the Special Response Vehicle Includes
The Special Response Vehicle can transport up to 15 patients and five crew members at one time. The vehicle can also transport patients who are on stretchers or in wheelchairs.
“One of the things we wanted in our design of the bus was to be able to maximize all the space and transport as many patients as possible with it,” Slotterback says. “Tie-down bars in the center, so we could configure it to hold wheelchair patients, too, for long-term care evacuations or even a hospital that had patients that could sit in wheelchairs.”
The vehicle contains all necessary medical equipment to transport patients, Slotterback says, including basic and advanced life support equipment. A wireless vital sign monitoring system allows crew members to monitor the vital signs of up to 13 patients at once on one system.
The equipment inside the vehicle is quickly and easily removable. This allows the use of the vehicle for other purposes, such as patient screenings or mobile first aid.
UPMC owns and operates the vehicle. The crew includes trained drivers, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics.
What the Special Response Vehicle Can Do
UPMC’s Special Response Vehicle has many potential uses, including for mass evacuations and community health events.
The vehicle originated from the need for a large-scale patient transportation option. For example, if there’s an evacuation at a hospital or long-term care facility, the vehicle can transport up to 15 patients at once. Or, in the case of a mass casualty event, the vehicle can transport patients from the scene to the hospital.
“If it’s locally, it’ll either be on-scene already or be there rather quickly, but we envision it being used mostly for the walking wounded or the not-as-critical patients,” Slotterback says. “The critical patients are going to be getting off the scene as quickly as possible and to the trauma services as quickly as possible.”
But one of the biggest benefits of the Special Response Vehicle, Slotterback says, is that it has many other uses.
“We wanted to have a flexible design, and we wanted to be able to utilize it for more than just mass casualty and evacuation,” Slotterback says. “We can take everything out of it within 20 or 30 minutes and then configure it to do just about anything.”
The special response vehicle was first used during the COVID-19 pandemic for community vaccine distribution. It allowed UPMC to deliver vaccines to underserved areas in the community.
Other uses of the vehicle so far have included community health screenings, educational events, mobile first aid unit during events, overflow patient treatment during events, and training exercises. The vehicle can travel to any of the communities that UPMC serves.
It has already been used at events throughout the state. Anyone who may need the vehicle can call it out through the Lycoming County 911 Center.
“The configurability of it leaves us open for whatever we can dream to use it for,” Slotterback says. “It opens up a lot of possibilities.”
With the Special Response Vehicle, UPMC hopes to provide care to all of our communities in their times of greatest need.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.