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Engineering the MIT ambulance

Student group designs new and improved ambulance for MIT Medical
Photo courtesy of MIT Medical

MIT students rely on cutting-edge technology to do coursework and research — and the Institute’s student-led Emergency Medical Services team (MIT-EMS) is no different. So when it came time for the group to purchase a new ambulance, they did what MIT students do best: they designed it themselves.

The result was a state-of-the-art emergency vehicle that MIT-EMS Technical Director Mark Forgues calls “the single most comfortable vehicle I have ever ridden in the back of.”

The previous ambulance, purchased in 2003, had served the team well. But its outdated technology and physical constraints were becoming apparent, and EMTs had become frustrated with the limited maneuverability it provided to attend to patients.

In 2011, the team began envisioning their next-generation ambulance. As the ones who would be using the ambulance, the students felt they were best qualified to define its capabilities. For inspiration and guidance, they conducted teleconferences with leading global safety experts and went on site visits to see other EMT teams’ ambulances.

To plan the layout of the new ambulance, MIT-EMT appropriated a basement room at MIT Medical, demarcating the ambulance’s perimeter on the floor with masking tape. They substituted boxes for seats, stretchers, and cabinets.

“We tried to follow a European model,” says Forgues, referring to European Union ambulance specifications, which have a heightened focus on operator safety. For example, the old ambulance configuration prevented EMTs from wearing a seat belt while caring for a patient, meaning they had to balance a patient’s needs against the risk of riding unrestrained. “The least we can do is make their job as safe as possible,” Forgues says.

“We designed the ambulance around safety,” says biology major Dylan Soukup ’14, who is current MIT-EMS chief. “We knew we wanted five-point harnesses, seats that swiveled, equivalent storage on either side of the stretcher, and other essentials. We went feature-by-feature.”

After six months, it was time to turn the blueprints into reality, a task that had its own challenges, Forgues says. “A number of major manufacturers wouldn’t even bid on it,” he says, due to the ambulance’s unusual dimensions and customizations. Eventually, Braun Ambulances accepted the challenge, taking eight months to complete the vehicle. Braun used their 23-foot Chief XL chassis ambulance as the model for the new MIT ambulance — which left just 10 inches of wiggle room in the ambulance bay.

Notable among the vehicle’s safety features is a lack of “strike zones” — any protrusion that could cause an EMT to hit his or her head while working. Video displays are embedded flush with the wall, and eye-level cabinets have been replaced with drawers with magnetic seals. Not only do these drawers not accidentally open as the ambulance turns a corner — as they did in the previous ambulance — but their contents are more accessible than a cabinet’s, where front items may obscure objects in the back.

Some supplies are accessible from the ambulance’s exterior, as well, relieving EMTs from needing to reenter the ambulance to retrieve necessities while attending to a patient outside. Dome lights inside have been replaced with LED panels, improving visibility in the vehicle. The innovations continue in the driver’s seat, where side and reverse cameras and a GPS unit help drivers navigate to any emergency.

The ambulance was praised beyond the MIT community. In October, the Metropolitan Boston Emergency Medical Services Council recognized MIT-EMS with an Innovation of the Year Award for “innovative thinking to address a problem that affects the EMS community.” Forgues isn’t surprised: “[The ambulance is] tight, it drives beautifully, and it handles great.”

But there’s more to the ambulance than its industry recognition; it bears personal significance to its crew: The license plate number reads 179, the badge number of the late Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who was killed in the line of duty last April. (A graphic on the side of the ambulance also commemorates Collier.)

The MIT community may now have an ambulance that reflects its creativity and values. But future classes of MIT students could also get an opportunity to leave their mark on the EMT fleet: The average lifespan of an ambulance is less than 10 years, so in 2021 it’ll be time to start designing the next ambulance.

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