Frazer Brings the Expertise of Building Oilfield Equipment to Ambulance Building

Aug. 1, 1999
Frazer Incorporated discovered that opportunities could reveal themselves when expertise from one specialized industry is used to solve problems for another

Frazer Incorporated discovered that opportunities could reveal themselves when expertise from one specialized industry is used to solve problems for another specialized industry. That discovery led the company into designing ambulances with Frazer's own distinctive elements of equipment and usage.

Located in Houston, Texas, Frazer was mainly a manufacturer of specialty oilfield geophysical modules during its early years. The company, started in 1956 by Charles Frazer, had developed a reputation as a niche builder of chassis-mounted geophysical units that were in use globally in the search for oil reserves.

"Geophysical or seismic units are bodies usually mounted on all-wheel-drive chassis that have extensive seismic recording equipment in them," says John Griffin Sr, president of Frazer Incorporated. "They are self-contained and powered by a generator mounted in the module's body." To record the seismic information, the modules house sensitive data-gathering equipment that should not be exposed to the elements of extreme heat and cold.

"Frazer had developed a reputation for building quality seismic recording boxes that were being used in some of the harshest environments in the world," says Griffin. "We still build seismic modules today; however, our ambulance business has shown that the diversification since 1982 has been good for us."

Something happened to the nation in the early 1980s that affected Frazer and many other body manufacturers that catered to the oil exploration companies. Oil prices began to free-fall, and drilling firms put the petroleum equipment manufacturers on notice to find other avenues of income. This brought a slow death to many manufacturers that depended on the oil field business as their only market.

For Frazer, a new manufacturing opportunity was on the horizon. While driving into the office one spring day in 1982, Griffin recognized that a "modular" ambulance, which was similar in shape to the seismic recording modules that Frazer had been building for some time. Griffin visualized that the interiors would probably have the same power needs as those of seismic modules. He followed through on his thoughts by placing a call to the City of Houston Fire Department (HFD).

Captain Ron Champagne, foreman of HFD's fleet maintenance, spoke with Griffin about essential equipment for an ambulance and described the problems that HFD encountered when operating an ambulance in Houston's climate.

Champagne said the electrical needs inside the module placed an immense strain on the chassis electrical system, especially in the extreme summer heat. The list of problem areas included inadequate air-conditioning systems, short alternator and battery life, and most importantly the loss of ignition capabilities due to battery drain.

Some ambulance manufacturers design the power requirements of the ambulance to operate solely from the electrical system of the chassis. According to Champagne, this over burdening of the vehicle's engine became evident as emergency response ambulances carried more sophisticated, electrical power-draining equipment.

Griffin understood that it would be best to run the ambulance unit's power requirements from a generator. This was a concept that eight ambulance vendors had dismissed as being unpractical, according to Champagne.

"I explained to Captain Champagne that it was really the preferable way to power the needs of a seismic module," says Griffin. The seismic modules are wired to run off-of 110-volt AC from the module's generator, so that the instruments receive power through 110-volt AC or 12-volt DC converters. For some time, Frazer had been building seismic recording modules that were powered by self-contained generators. Geologist must rely on seismic modules on a 24-hour basis in extremely rugged global environments.

Griffin said that it wouldn't be difficult to wire the ambulance modules to operate from a module-mounted generator that would produce both 110-volt AC and 12-volt DC. The module could also be powered with a 110-volt AC shoreline.

"The day after our first phone conversation, Captain Champagne, and several fire department personnel arrived at our facility. The next day design of the first Frazer ambulance was started," says Griffin.

Today, Frazer builds Type-I and Type-II ambulances that are sold domestically and internationally. "We have gained inroads into the marketplace because we continually improved the product, and the product continues to prove itself in the field," says Griffin.

Self-Contained Generated Power Ambulances and emergency response vehicles require large amounts of electrical power. The amperage needs of these vehicles are sometimes two to three times that of a comparable vehicle in normal service. When needed equipment, such as patient compartment lights, patient-to-hospital radio transmissions, or the module's heater/air-conditioning unit is actuated, it can easily overpower a chassis electrical system.

According to Griffin, the power draw of an ambulance usually exceeds 180 amps. Manufactures such as Ford, GM, and others, have added emergency response or severe-duty options for such vehicles. The added electrical system capacity provides extra amps to run the chassis-mounted intersection lights, emergency running lights, and in-cab radio communications.

"The advantage of having a generator provide the power to the ambulance module is that the chassis' electrical system doesn't have to produce all of the power for the entire cab, chassis, and the module," says Griffin.

For example, a Mitsubishi 215-amp alternator running at high idle with an underhood operating temperature of 200* F can pull down as low as 130 amps. "Electrical load managers or load sequencers have generally been the answer for ambulance users," says Griffin. "Our solution was to provide much more amps to the ambulance operators by building the module with a generator."

Building a Strong Ambulance Skeleton "Frazer has learned a great deal from building seismic units," says Griffin. "We incorporate that knowledge into our ambulance manufacturing."

The base frame for a Frazer ambulance is made from the same material as the frame for the seismic module. Seismic units receive a great deal of "racking" motion. This is the twisting of the frame when opposing sides of the front and rear axles are twisted in an opposing vertical direction. Frazer builds the modules and mounts them to the chassis understanding that ambulances also receive racking stress from jumping curbs and sometimes forging through rugged terrain to get to a patient.

"We mount the base frame to the chassis with 10" x 4" x 3/8" steel mounting plates attached with 5/8" grade-eight bolts," says Griffin. "Mounting the body for applications where the unit has to traverse rugged country is a specialty with us."

Sitting in the shop is a Freightliner FL-60 in 4 x 4 configuration. "This unit will possibly have our system of tension-mounted high-strength springs as the module's front mounting system," explains Griffin. "It all depends on how much off-roading they will do." Although each module is custom built for the customer, Frazer often handles multi-unit orders.

The standard base frame of the ambulance module is a 3" x 1 1/2" x .188" aluminum wall tubing laid out on a base of 3" x .188" aluminum wall channel.

Two jig tables are used for building the bases and sidewalls of the module. The jig tables can be set to add sidewall cutouts for special doors or other customer requested storage areas.

To reduce weight, sidewalls and roof construction consist of 1 1/2" x 1 1/2" x .125" aluminum tubing placed on 12" to 14" centers, depending on customer specifications and applications. "We also build the rear door area with some special items that strengthen the structural integrity of the door jam area," says Griffin. "This area gets a lot of wear from normal entry and exit."

In cases where the chassis is available, the assemblers will build the module around the chassis. This is especially true when manufacturing a module for a four-wheel drive or other types of specialized chassis or applications. Once the frame skeleton is mounted onto the chassis, wall sections are attached to the module.

The outer skin is a .080 aluminum sheet that is bonded to the outer frame skeleton by using very-high-bond (VHB) cement solution. According to Griffin, VHB increases longevity to the module and has provided Frazer with superior results for more than seven years. "VHB provides a smooth-skin outer finish, and it adds insulating and noise-reduction qualities to the module, especially since we fully weld around all 90* joints," says Griffin.

Exterior doors are formed by Frazer aluminum mechanics and attached to the module. Outboard-facing doors are installed using full-length piano hinges and finished by the installation of a weather-tight compound strip.

After the frame and skin have been fabricated into the basic body structure, the module is sent through a water-seal test on the way to the paint booth. Once the module has passed the water-seal test, the unit is primed and painted with the customer's specified paint pattern.

The patterns can be elaborate in their design, Griffin says. Quality control at Frazer is precisely followed to insure that even multiple orders are matched exactly to the customer's specifications. Painting an ambulance is just one step in the complete graphic layout of the finished product. Some customers require Frazer to install the conspicuity graphics and the end-users department lettering.

Building a Healthy Interior The module is moved to the interior build-out facility after it's painted. Some modules are brought into the build-out phase by being mounted on a caster platform, and wheeled in for build-out. This system provides easy movement inside the building. Other units with special chassis or specifications are completely mounted and driven into the build-out facility.

This building is similar to a clean-room environment. Because welding on the aluminum doesn't cause the slag and visible smoke output of steel fabrication, the build-out area is extremely clean. It is fully air-conditioned with special exhaust-venting systems so that the vehicles can be operated inside the building.

The next step is to construct the interior of the module. The interior is lined with a heat reflective insulation for roof and other customer specified locations. The cabinetry is then added with special bracing for cabinets designed for heavy objects and for hand rails that are bolted to the bracing behind the interior's fiberglass reinforced product (FRP) skin.

The location of cabinetry is determined by customer specifications for the most efficient use of interior space, and for important medical equipment to be within the easy reach of the attendant. Frazer forms the cabinets with aluminum sheet and uses a piano hinge for attaching the cabinet doors. All doors have fully heli-arc'ed at joint locations. The cabinets are then painted with polyurethane enamel to match the FRP interior wall material.

Attendant seating and floor covering is added to the module. The customer specifies seating arrangements and style of attendant's chair. Many services use a captain's chair with a self-contained suspension. Frazer mounts the chair base with special buttressing plates welded into the lower floor framing. Along with the attendants chair is usually a padded bench seat with other possible jump seats added to the interior of the module.

Armstrong Medintec is a typical floor covering of the ambulance industry. The floor covering in an ambulance module receives a great deal of abuse from emergency scene contaminants including human fluids and chemicals. The floor covering is usually carried onto the sidewall as a scuff covering.

Further interior work is performed to finish out the module with the addition of stretcher escutcheon plates and fastening systems, additional safety grab handles, intravenous bag holders, and aspirator suction canisters.

The Electrical and Climate Connection Wiring of module is accomplished by connecting the module's equipment to the pre-installed wiring harness. The harness is installed during the interior build-out prior to installing the module's cabinetry.

The wiring harness is made at the Frazer plant in Houston and provides power connections to all the patient critical-care equipment, the climate and lighting equipment of the module, and the scene and emergency running lights.

"In a Frazer ambulance, the critical-care equipment can be powered from the generator, the engine's charging system, or directly from the shoreline power supply," says Griffin. "We build a wiring harness that is designed especially for our system. That's especially important when you're pulling large amperage for the climate control systems and the specialized equipment."

The generator and air-conditioning equipment is installed into the module's cabinetry. The generator, an Onan 4.5-kw commercial-grade unit, is placed into an outboard-facing cabinet. This cabinet is specially constructed to house the generator and to promote quick-access repairs. The cabinet is both heat and noise shielded, and has a specially fabricated slide-out tray to support the generator. The steel tray, manufactured by Innovative Industries, shields generator vibration from the ambulance floor.

"The air-conditioning of the module is provided by special equipment," Griffin says. "We provide a self contained 15,000-BTU air-conditioner and heat pump combination." The unit is mounted inside the module, and Frazer builds in a system of air vents that can be directed by the attendants. The modules also contain a 6,300-BTU electric heater. The generator powers all the air-conditioning and heater equipment.

After installing the fuses and circuit breakers, the electrical system is ready for a battery of tests that are performed on each vehicle. "One of our electrical system's benefits is the ability with which fuses, breakers, and solenoids can be worked on, if necessary. In our electrical system, there is also instantaneous fail-safe power from the chassis' charging system if the generator goes down," says Griffin.

Once the system is wired and all the equipment is checked thoroughly, the vehicle is ready for delivery to the end user.

Meeting the Operators Needs The Houston plant has a third shop designed to handle the refurbishing, mechanical, and bodywork that customers bring to Frazer.

Refurbishing of ambulance modules is becoming a growing part of the Frazer success formula. According to Griffin, some municipal operators are refurbishing their units rather than purchasing new ones. "In most cases, we refurbish Frazer units. However, we are seeing some units from other manufacturers coming into the shop for refurbishment," says Griffin.

Frazer also replaces earlier Frazer modules with newly purchased modules. This swapping of modules is very easy with a Frazer unit because of the lifting system that's built into the unit.

"We design overhead lifting points into our module to avoid the use of forklifts and jacks," says Griffin. Frazer modules are lifted via the four-corner lift points that are connected to structural components of the frame. Frazer designs special connecting hardware for electrical, radio, and computer equipment that's operated in the cab or the module.

Frazer plans to continue the diversified growth pattern that was developed some years ago, according to Griffin. The manufacturing of both seismic and ambulance bodies requires producing a product that can withstand a great deal of stress.

"We build a quality product because sometimes people depend on our manufactured equipment to help them," says Griffin. Even thought Frazer has diversified, they are still building a product that's used in a hostile environment where professionals depend on how the equipment will perform.

About the Author

John Nahas