Union Emergency Medical Unit kicks off summer with new ambulance

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UNION, NJ — The Union Emergency Medical Unit answers more than 5,600 emergency calls a year in this and the surrounding communities, making it one of the busiest EMS agencies in the county. With the current housing boom and anticipated added population in the township, the number of 911 calls is expected to grow even higher. With that in mind, the unit decided to purchase a gently used ambulance from the Summit Volunteer Ambulance Squad.

Good timing. With the added pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak, there are even more calls, putting more strain on Union EMU’s ambulance fleet.

“Union EMU answers an average of 15 calls for a service day; that number was closer to 30 at the height of the pandemic,” Union EMU Capt. David Bialas said on May 29. “Those numbers, plus the size and weight of the ambulances, put a lot of wear and tear on the apparatus.

“We now have seven ambulances that get rotated in and out of service for maintenance, inventory and/or decontamination,” Bialas continued. “This allows us to spread the mileage and hours among the fleet so the ambulances can serve us for a longer number of years. We operate two ambulances 24/7, but during high call volume, fires, mass casualty incidents, severe weather or special events, like the Union County Saint Patrick’s Day Parade or Union Township Memorial Day Parade, we have the ability to place more ambulances in service.”

Due to the agency’s budget constraints, the purchase of a new ambulance was not feasible.

“We rely on the revenue from transport billing and donations, no tax dollars, and that amount fluctuates every year, while operating costs rise every year with our call volume,” Bialas said, adding that the unit had seen an average increase of 500 calls per year in the last five years. “We were dealing with large expenditures remounting an ambulance, facing major repairs on another ambulance, and were forced to decommission another ambulance. Coupling that with the time it takes for a manufacturer to produce an ambulance, the design, purchase, and building of an ambulance — the process was not going to meet our immediate needs.”

Soon after, a solution came by way of Summit.

“One of our per diem EMTs, Kari Phair, is the EMS chief of the Summit Volunteer Ambulance Squad and mentioned to our operations staff that Summit was looking to sell their gently used ambulance,” Bialas said. “Lt. Matthew Steitz, our fleet maintenance officer, and our maintenance vendors inspected the ambulance, and it was determined that it was a sound purchase that could help us serve our community. Lt. Steitz put together a proposal, planned and then retrofitted the ambulance to match our fleet.”

The gently used 2006 Braun slope-side, long-body ambulance had fewer than 50,000 miles and 6,200 hours on it; it had reliably served the city of Summit until it was replaced. In the fall, the membership of Union Emergency Medical Unit approved the purchase of the ambulance and three Ferno 35x stretchers for $15,000.

Many members clocked countless hours stripping, retrofitting and upgrading the ambulance under the guidance of Steitz, but one problem remained: The ambulance’s colors were Summit’s blue-and-white paint scheme, rather than Union EMU’s customary orange, blue and white.

Ready to help in any capacity, Kenny Barbera of Union Collision provided the solution. Barbera donated labor and materials to Union Emergency Medical Unit to paint the ambulance. The donation was valued at nearly $15,000, based on estimates the agency obtained from other body shops. Steitz, along with Barbera’s two sons, worked to design, prep and paint the ambulance in February.

“Finding a solution for the color scheme was pretty easy,” Barbera said on June 1. “Our painters had photos of other ambulances and copied their color scheme and design. The EMU squad provided us with paint codes. All departments were involved with this project. The vehicle was initially sent to the body shop, where all moldings and lights were removed, and all dings and dents were repaired. It was then sent to the prep department, where it was sanded and masked again. Then the vehicle was sent to our refinishing department, where it was refinished, and, finally, to our detail department, where it was reassembled and prepped for delivery.”

For Barbera, the only challenge was balancing his business with his charity.

“The work took place at our shop at 640 Rahway Ave. in Union,” Barbera said. “The only challenge we had was to do our normal daily work for scheduled customers and repair and refinish the ambulance both in a timely manner. This was accomplished with overtime. We were glad to help out the EMU team. They volunteer so much of their time for so many years and work from donations. This was my way of giving back to them and the community.”

The agency’s plan was to debut the ambulance as EMS-7 at the Union County St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March, but those plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the parade’s cancellation.

Union EMU brought the ambulance to Trenton to be inspected and certified by the New Jersey Office of EMS in preparation for the pandemic, but unfortunately its use was hampered by the immense call volume related to the pandemic and social-distancing limitations that prevented in-service training.

The organization again hoped to debut EMS-7, this time at the annual Memorial Day parade, but that too was derailed by the pandemic. So Barbera and Union Collision orchestrated “Cruising for a Cause,” a dual-route rolling car show that benefited front-line workers through FLAG of Union and boosted the morale of Union EMU’s members and the community.

Bialas expressed gratitude to Barbera, Union Collision and everyone else who helped come up with an affordable solution to an expensive problem.

“Personally, I am happy with the purchase and retrofit of the ambulance, because it is going to be valuable to us and our community,” Bialas said. “However, there are going to be growing pains. My responsibility to the organization to ensure our continued operations is different from our members’ who ride on the ambulances daily. The ambulance is not configured exactly to what our members are used to, and that has produced some reservations.

“However, with a return to some normalcy during the pandemic, we will be working on in-service training to overcome these challenges,” he continued. “This ambulance was a small investment on our part that was made possible by Kenny Barbera and Union Collision. It is serving as a stopgap, as we plan to purchase a new ambulance in the future, and I think it will serve our community for many years.”