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CEDAR CITY — Someone calling for an ambulance is likely having one of the worst days of their life, and ambulance crews work to make patients and families as comfortable as possible.
"I could tell you story after story after story of families we have served in the most intimate way,” said Iron County Sheriff's Lt. Jody Edwards, who runs the office's ambulance department. “In public safety and public service, you have to have it in your heart first to want to help.”
Sometimes, though, all the help in the world can’t keep a patient alive.
"We go on scene sometimes, and unfortunately, the patient is already deceased,” Edwards said. “But we can make a difference there if we’re not afraid to put our arm around someone during their worst, most difficult situation. If we do what we can to make that a little bit better, we can help them heal.”
In public safety and public service, you have to have it in your heart first to want to help.
–Lt. Jody Edwards,Iron County Sheriff's Department
Last year, Iron County had more than 2,600 ambulance calls. Some of them involve the scenario Edwards is talking about. However, for a growing population like what Iron County is experiencing, all those emergency calls were becoming a concern.
Iron County runs its own stand-alone ambulance department, meaning it’s not connected to a fire department like you see in many Utah cities and counties. That also means it can be tough to keep budgets in the positive, especially when Iron County’s ambulances had many miles on them and some were starting to break down.
"We needed a new ambulance, so we priced a couple of them and they came in at about $215,000. We found a deal for a slightly used one at $205,000,” the lieutenant said.
Iron County wasn’t sure it could commit that much money to an ambulance for a department already at its budget for the year.
One reason why money is tight is because not everyone who uses the ambulance service pays their bills for it. But paramedics still go.
"If they don't have two pennies to rub together, we still respond and give them the same service as the people who do pay their bill. That's our job,” said Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower. “We're in the business of saving lives, not seeing who can pay the bill."
But Edwards had an idea. After hearing about an ambulance crash in Hildale, Washington County, he decided to ask the city's fire chief about how the accident happened and how bad the crash was.
Edwards learned from Hildale’s chief about a company in Las Vegas that can retrofit ambulances by taking the box of an ambulance and put it on a new chassis. He gave the company a call.
“They said they could do it for $95,000. Initially I said, 'You guys have to be up in the night,'” said Edwards with a laugh. “We traveled to Las Vegas to see this facility, and right off the bat we very impressed. They had been in business for years with fire service re-mounts and had only done eight ambulances, but they were willing to work with us.”
Edwards and one of his co-workers drove an old Iron County ambulance to Las Vegas.
"We took an old, tired ambulance to them that barely made it, puttering, sputtering and smoking the whole way,” he said.
Soon, mechanics with Firetrucks Unlimited had the box off of the old ambulance and mounted it on a new chassis. They did the entire job for less than half the cost of a brand new ambulance, saving taxpayers $100,000.
"Boy. It beat our expectations. It really has,” said Gower.
The new ambulance has only been running in Iron County for two and a half months, but already has more than 8,000 miles on it.
"This ambulance can serve this community for 10 years,” Edwards said. “We wanted to get the best bang for our buck and we got it.”