Chester Co. joins suit over 6-liter ambulance engines

CHESTER -- Britt Lineberger remembers when Chester County's Unit 1 ambulance broke down along Interstate 77 while taking a patient to a Columbia hospital.

There also have been times when emergency medical workers jumped in the F-350 to respond to a call and the engine wouldn't crank, said Lineberger, the county's assistant EMS director.

In all those instances, the county either had to use another ambulance or request backup from a nearby agency. Because of these problems, the Chester County Council recently voted to join a national class-action lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. over alleged defects in the automaker's 6-liter diesel engines.

The lawsuit involves engines that were installed in some ambulances between 2004 and 2006, according to a document provided to The Herald by county attorney Joanie Winters.

Winters said joining the lawsuit won't cost the county anything. And while there is no promise of a return, the suit could help the county recoup at least some of the money it's spent on towing the vehicles to the repair shop.

"If that door is open for us," Winters said, "we'd be foolish not to walk through it."

Ginny Sloan, the county's EMS director, said joining the litigation was "kind of a no-brainer."

"We need to help do something," she said. "If nothing else, every little bit helps the citizens when it comes time to do our budget."

Ambulance was purchased in 2003

The county has two ambulances with the 6-liter Ford engine. But only one has been a big problem, officials said. The ambulance was purchased new after Ford started making those engines in 2003.

No ambulance builder makes a chassis -- the frame, wheels and engine -- for the emergency vehicles, Lineberger said. Automakers such as Ford manufacture those parts, and the ambulance boxes are mounted on them.

For years, Lineberger said, the Ford chassis has been the industry standard. But problems began when the company started making the 6-liter diesel engine.

"The 7.3 (engine) was their bread and butter and ran for decades," he said. "I mean, the 7.3 ran forever."

The county's problematic ambulance has been in the shop for chronic oil leaks, air-conditioning and wiring problems, Sloan said. Once, when she was driving the ambulance, she tried to use the radio and the windshield wipers turned on. When she flipped a turn signal, the backup alarm started beeping.

"We've just had repair after repair after repair on it," she said. "It's just been one thing after another."

Although no one has ever been critically harmed because of an ambulance breakdown, Sloan said, the mechanical woes have delayed some calls.

Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans said in an e-mail to The Herald that Ford began using 6-liter diesel engines in F-Series heavy duty trucks and E-Series full-size vans -- including parts that serve as the foundation for ambulances -- because they allowed the company to offer more fuel-efficient vehicles while also improving horsepower and torque.

"In 2005, we identified a repair to address 6.0-liter diesel engine concerns," the e-mail stated. "We have not taken this issue lightly. We have taken extensive steps and dedicated significant resources to resolve our customers' concerns."

As for the lawsuit, she wrote, "we don't believe it is appropriate to treat this as a class action lawsuit. As concerns relate to specific ambulance fleets, we have recommended that our fleet customers contact Ford, their local Ford dealer or their local Ford fleet contact, so that we can work directly with them to resolve those concerns."

York County won't be involved in the lawsuit because it contracts its ambulance services through Piedmont Medical Center and the local rescue squads, said Cotton Howell, director of the county's Emergency Operations Center.

Piedmont EMS director Robert White said the hospital has no pending ambulance lawsuits.

"We have several Fords in our fleet, and we're happy with them right now," he said.