Next-gen rescue vehicles leave ambulances in their dust

From drones to flying go-carts to million-dollar command centers, natural disaster response vehicles keep things running so first responders can save lives faster.

On a clear January afternoon in 2010, a fault rupture 6.2 miles beneath the earth's surface sent shock waves rippling toward the southwestern corner of the island of Hispaniola. In the 30 seconds that the magnitude 7 temblor shook Haiti, and in the dozens of aftershocks that followed, more than 1.3 million people were displaced and over 300,000 people lost their lives. 


A continent away, Jake Gillanders, a captain at the Poulsbo Fire Department in Washington state, watched the news unfold. His wife was pregnant with their daughter at the time, so he waited until after the child was born, six weeks later, before packing his bags and paying his own way toHaiti to help as a medical volunteer. Despite 10 years of experience as a paramedic and firefighter, he wasn't prepared for the destruction he found. Roads were impassable and entire towns were reduced to dust.

"We were totally overwhelmed by the amount of assistance required," Gillanders says. "We had no reliable transportation and very limited satellite communications ." 

His experience on the ground assisting the wounded amid overwhelming devastation inspired GIllanders to build a better disaster response network when he returned to Poulsbo 10 days later. He and five friends founded Empact Northwest in 2010, a nonprofit that travels to natural disasters with trucks , drones , flying go-carts and other specialty gear to quickly rescue people trapped in buildings or behind flood zones and provide medical care. 

Speed is critical during disaster response. The faster trained responders reach injured people who need help, the better their chances of survival. For patients experiencing cardiac arrest, severe bleeding or a blocked airway, the difference between life and death can come down to a few minutes, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.And beyond attending to the injured, rescue vehicles, some of which can cost $1 million each, arm response teams with essential tools to tackle the many challenges they face in the field. They store gear for finding injured people buried in collapsed buildings, they carry lights and generators so rescuers can work in any conditions andtheyact as communications hubs when cell towers and Wi-Fi networks are knocked out.

"We literally could not do the job we do without technology," Gillanders says. "Being a small organization [just 50 people; six employees and the rest volunteers] requires us to not only use technology well, but to use it creatively."

And there's opportunity for new technologies that would let rescue vehicles do even more. All-terrain vehicles with wheels and robot arms could climb over barriers, fuel cell vehicles could generate their own power, and vehicles carrying drinkable water could assist thirsty people in areas where pipes are ruptured. But regardless of a vehicle's features, the ultimate goal is to help response teams reach injured people quickly and save more lives, particularly as climate change makes some disasters more frequent and more intense.

"Wherever you live, you're going to be impacted somehow by climate change, be it directly by an extreme event happening where you live...or your ability to get what you need," explains Sarah Kapnick, deputy division leader and research physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University. "The climate isn't going away ... how we deal with [extreme weather] now is going to be the difference in how negative the impacts of [natural disasters] are in the future." 

Flying ambulances (on wheels)

Much more than just wailing ambulances carrying people to a hospital, specialty vehicles that attend to natural disasters range from million-dollar communications hubs on wheels to $1,000 drones and flying go-carts. Federal, state and local governments, volunteers, nongovernmental organizations, and nonprofits like Empact Northwest dispatch them to respond to everything from tornadoes and hurricanes to earthquakes and tsunamis. But the concept of a dedicated emergency response team is a relatively new invention.

Emergency response vehicles got their start in war zones. Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, a French military surgeon during the French Revolution, who later served under Napoleon during wars in the late 1700s, is credited with formalizing emergency transport for people injured in battle. He understood that patients had a better chance of survival the faster they could receive medical care, but the heavy wagons used to move patients took between 24 to 36 hours to initially reach them, which was often too late. 


A sketch of Larrey's "flying ambulance."

Getty Images

As Larrey wrote in his 1815 book,Memoirs of Military Surgery, that problem of reaching victims quickly led him to "the idea of constructing an ambulance in such a manner that it might afford a ready conveyance for the wounded during battle." So he arranged for lighter wagons called "flying ambulances" that would move injured people to field hospitals more quickly.

Union forces later adopted Larrey's method during the Civil War. Jonathan Letterman, a Union military surgeon and general, developed a system of light wagons to move patients injured on the battlefield first to field dressing stations and later to a hospital. He also inspired the creation of the first nonmilitary ambulance service in 1865 at the Commercial Hospital in Cincinnati. The first motorized ambulance arrived in 1899 at the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago.

Power wheels

Today's vehicles have come a long way since those first wagons. Some trucks from custom vehicle manufacturer LDV cost more than $1 million and take a year to build at the company's headquarters in rural Burlington, Wisconsin. Its mobile command centers are literally offices on wheels, holding everything a police station or other government agency might need to coordinate response to a natural disaster.

"Any time you hear about [natural disasters] on national headlines, we tend to get word back at some point that one of our vehicles was used during it," says Jason Gaulke, an electrical engineering manager at LDV who oversees the guts that go into each truck. 

Each command center includes basics like air conditioning, coupled with sophisticated communications systems, audio and visual equipment and computer networks. The more high-tech models might have extras like slide-out rooms like in a motorhome, telescopic camera masts, meeting areas, communications suites, kitchens and bathrooms.

The Lenexa Police Department in Kansas bought an LDV mobile command center in 2019. It's as decked out as it gets, complete with two slide-out rooms, a kitchen and bathroom -- and a "one-touch system" that levels the truck so it doesn't wobble while people work. The department hasn't used the vehicle for a natural disaster yet, master police officer Danny Chavez tells me over the phone. But given Lenexa's location, 15 miles southwest of Kansas City in an area prone to tornadoes and flooding, it will someday have the opportunity. 

All that tech means it can take time to learn how to operate LDV's most complex trucks, but Gaulke designed an automation system that handles some of the power-up and shut-down steps of the vehicle for you. All it takes is a couple clicks on a built-in touchscreen display in each truck. A big green button initiates the truck's "auto-start" function, including turning on the main power, the lights, the heating and air-conditioning system -- and any other things that can be safely automated. The screen prompts users when they need to assist with a step, such as pulling out a slide-out room or stabilizing the truck so it's level. A red button on the display reverses the steps and tells you when the truck can be driven again safely. 


The Lenexa Police Department purchased this mobile command center in 2019.

LDV, Inc.

For responding to natural disasters most effectively, LDV's design team recommends additional truck components, like satellite uplinks for satellite data communication and voice over IP phones so tech operators can still use phones and the internet, even if power lines are down.

"Any time you go somewhere after a disaster, the odds of the cellular networking being up and running are pretty slim," says Gillanders.

In the field

Since Empact Northwest's team is too small to use one of LDV's vehicles, Gillanders says it has to think out of the box. When I spoke to him over Zoom, he smiled when he talked about the group's partnership with SkyRunner, the maker of a light-sport aircraft that Empact uses. Sort of a go-cart you can fly, the SkyRunner has the off-road capabilities of a dune buggy on land and a fan engine and parachute that transform it into a parasailer. The SkyRunner doesn't need a long runway for takeoff or landing -- or even a runway at all. A strip of beach or a cleared field can be enough, as long as it has 600 feet. 


The SkyRunner holds two people -- one pilot and one passenger.


SkyRunners are considered recreational crafts, but Empact Northwest takes particular advantage of their "long loiter time." Their ability to idle overhead for hours like a helicopter makes SkyRunners ideal for following vehicle convoys and identifying in real-time which roads are clear -- and which ones to avoid due to flooding, downed trees or other debris. A single SkyRunner holds only two people -- a pilot and a passenger -- but Gillanders' team also uses the vehicle to transport people trapped in flood zones.

Shortly after Hurricane Florence pummeled the Carolinas in 2018, Empact transported a medical lab courierover washed-out roads using one of the flying crafts. The courier was delivering blood to a patient suffering from kidney failure. 

But not all of Empact's new vehicles can fly. In 2018, the Ford Motor Company Fund awarded it a as part of the Ford Disaster Relief Mobility Challenge, a grant contest that awarded rescue vehicles to three nonprofits working in disaster relief. 

The high-top, long-bed van, named Rescue 112, arrived empty and ready for customization. Empact staff and volunteers worked together on it, lending their varied skills in electrical wiring, soundproofing, metalworking and more. Ten months later, they had a vehicle with all the gear they'd need to provide rescue assistance and medical aid during natural disasters. 


It took Empact Northwest 10 months to complete the build on Rescue 112.

Jake Gillanders

Rescue 112 has a mobile command post in the front -- that's where the radio and other communications equipment lives, including satellite phones, data, radios and GPS equipment. There's a self-contained equipment section for search cameras, drones for aerial views of damage and the seismic devices Empact uses to locate people trapped under rubble. It also tows Empact Northwest's trailer, which has a larger command post and a light tower that helps the Empact workers see at night. 

Different natural disasters have different tech requirements. An earthquake, Gillanders explains, usually causes more structural damage than a hurricane, requiring a larger team and extra equipment. If an earthquake hits a big city with high-rise buildings, for example, the team assumes they'll need their full kit of gear and automatically deploys with the van and the trailer. But if a hurricane hits a rural area with smaller buildings, they're more likely to bring only the van.

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What's next

The next-generation of support vehicles combine quirky design with practical features. Picture a vehicle with a cockpit like one of those spinning gravity rides at an amusement park. Instead of regular wheels like a car, four spindly, jointed legs extend from it with wheels attached at the ends. It can step over downed trees, scale walls of partially collapsed structures and evade most other obstacles in its path. Hyundai's "Elevate" is just a concept today, but the car manufacturer's CRADLE division -- short for the Center for Robotic-Augmented Design in Living Experiences -- designed this otherworldly walking, climbing robo-car with natural disasters in mind. 

Other innovations focus less on the vehicle itself and more on how it's powered -- and fuel cell technology is big among rescue vehicle concepts. 

The Hyundai Elevate concept redefines "off-roading."


In 2016, the US Army partnered with GM on the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Different from a typical Chevy Colorado, the ZH2 prototype has a portable generator, and because it's built into a pickup chassis, it should also be able to tackle harsh off-road conditions. And thanks to its fuel cell technology, it generates water as a byproduct. Army testing for the ZH2 started in 2017, but it has a lot of practical applications for other field work, including natural disaster response. 

Another GM fuel cell concept, the SURUS prototype (short for Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure), is a large truck platform with a modular design that can transform into an all-terrain ambulance, a command center for power generation, a delivery truck or a military vehicle. 

" aims to solve some of the toughest transportation challenges created by natural disasters, complex logistics environments and global conflicts," the car manufacturer said in a 2017 press release introducing the SURUS. 


The SURUS is a modular concept with a lot of potential applications. 

General Motors

Then there's the H2Rescue truck, part of a joint project between the US Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. Announced in 2019, the H2Rescue truck is a fuel cell, battery hybrid vehicle. No images have been released yet, but it promises to provide power, heat and drinkable water for up to 72 hours. Such a truck could revolutionize disaster response, Gillanders says, in the critical time between the first 24 hours after a disaster when local responders are on the scene to when state and federal teams arrive up to 96 hours later. 

Exhausted and running out of equipment after their first day onsite, local responders need a break. "This work matters because there's a gap that doesn't otherwise get filled," Gillanders says. "And [after 24 hours] you start seeing the need for more specialized resources, like technology or special tools or K-9 units that may not exist at the local level ... [That time frame is] where we exist and where we find that we're the most essential."

Gillanders ultimately traveled to Haiti 14 more times between 2010 and 2012 to offer long-term medical assistance after the earthquake, and he returned again in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew. Ten years into Empact's history, the team has deployed all over the world and to four states, including, most recently, providing COVID-19 tests in its local area in Washington. 

I wonder what Empact -- and countless other response teams -- could do with a Elevate or an H2Rescue truck. Fortunately for us, I know Gillanders would be among the first to sign up if these vehicles ever become a reality.

"I don't know how to say no; that's probably part of it," he says with a chuckle when I ask why he started this nonprofit, why he still does this work. He's the last of the six founders of Empact Northwest still working there. "I think it's an opportunity to serve others."