By Ivan Raconteur
North Central Ambulance Sales in Lester Prairie offers customers a variety of new, used, and rebuilt ambulances and other emergency vehicles.
Owner Jerry Pawelk began working on ambulances in his other business, Jerry’s Transmission. In 1988, the company began selling new ambulances. Today, the company also sells rescue trucks and fire trucks.
Jerry’s son, Fred, is in charge of sales, and he explained that the process from the time an order is placed to the time an ambulance is delivered depends on the customer and the situation.
The company sells new vehicles in all or part of six states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Some states, including Minnesota, require cities to go out for bids when purchasing items greater than a certain dollar value. Other states, including Wisconsin and North Dakota, do not require this.
There are also differences from state to state in terms of who owns ambulances. In some states, most are owned by municipalities. In others, private companies such as hospitals might own ambulances. In Minnesota, large companies such as the Mayo Clinic own many of the ambulances.
North Central Ambulance Sales supplies all of the 130 ambulances in the fleet for the City of Chicago.
There are national specifications for ambulances. Some states choose to adopt these, while others do not.
Fred said ambulances in Minnesota can use blue or amber lights, but neither of these colors is acceptable in Wisconsin. In Illinois, green lights are allowed.
Because of all of the specific details that are involved, North Central has some sales representatives who deal with ambulances, and others who deal with fire trucks, since the options and requirements are very different.
The company uses two manufacturers for new ambulances, Braun Industries and McCoy Miller. The company also sells Crimson fire apparatus.
Much of North Central’s business comes from returning customers. Word of mouth and leads from EMS conferences generate most of the rest.
When a potential buyer contacts North Central Ambulance, the company will drive a vehicle to the customer’s location for a demonstration.
The next step is for the company to develop specifications for the customer’s vehicle. These can range from fairly generic to very specific.
It can take 120 to 180 days from the time an order is placed to deliver the finished product. The entire process from the first customer contact to delivery can take a year. The process is quicker in non-bid states, Fred said.
Many ambulance and fire truck operators purchase vehicles according to a replacement schedule which may be based on mileage or on a certain number of years, according to Fred.
A large part of North Central’s business involves remounting and refurbishing ambulances. This involves removing the module (the box that contains the equipment and space for patients and staff) from the chassis and remounting it on a new chassis, which can save the customer 30 to 50 percent compared to buying a new vehicle. This process can be repeated multiple times, especially on Braun ambulances, which Fred said are the highest quality and the safest.
Fred said many owners run vehicles 150,000 to 250,000 miles before replacing them, but there are modules out there that have more than 800,000 miles on them because they have been remounted four or five times.
The ability to do this work sets North Central apart from the competition. The company is one of only three in the country that are Ford Quality Vehicle Modifier (QVM) certified.
In addition to being less expensive than a new vehicle, the re-mounting process takes less time about eight weeks. Many ambulance operators are choosing this option, and North Central already has a backlog through the end of this year.
The way they are used takes its toll on ambulances. “Most get used hard,” Fred said. “They are run from zero to as fast as you can go, lights and sirens, most of the time. An ambulance sees the most severe duty of any emergency vehicle. Even squad cars spend a lot of time just cruising.”
Fortunately, North Central is able to handle any type of repair job from large to small.
The company also works on ambulances that have been involved in accidents.
“It happens more often than you think,” Fred commented. He has a binder that contains many photos illustrating what can happen when an ambulance traveling at a high rate of speed encounters a stationary object or another vehicle.
North Central has a tow truck and a flatbed, and can pick up vehicles and bring them back to the shop for service.
The company can also provide loaner ambulances for customers who are having an ambulance remounted or, in cases where an ambulance has been involved in an accident, until the vehicle can be repaired or a new one can be ordered and delivered. Down time is not an option when it comes to emergency vehicles.
Fred said the ambulance industry is a “fun, interesting, and challenging business.”
North Central has a long tradition of providing value for its customers. The company constantly adapts to changes and looks for ways to make the vehicles safer for both patients and crews, Fred said.
Recent trends in the business include ambulances that are specially designed for specific applications, such as neonatal units. Others are being equipped with ramps and winches to make it easier to serve the aging population.
North Central employs 18 people in Lester Prairie. Six months ago, it opened a second facility in Illinois.
“A lot of guys have been here 20 years or more,” Fred said.
In addition to ambulances and fire trucks, the company has sold a variety of specialized equipment to meet customers’ needs, including rescue trucks, sheriff’s vehicles, prisoner transports, and modified ATVs.
The shop remains true to its roots, and still does a wide range of service work from transmission and engine jobs to oil changes and tune ups on everything from ambulances to passenger vehicles to classic cars.