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Miller Coach Co. President Al Miller, left, and General Manager David Duncan retrofit two or three ambulances a week for clients nationwide.
Miller Coach Co. President Al Miller, left, and General Manager David Duncan retrofit two or three ambulances a week for clients nationwide.

Business Spotlight: Life in the Fast Lane

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Al Miller has lived most of his life in the glow of flashing red lights.

With a career focus on emergency medical services, he’s been involved in everything from selling fire extinguishers and designing rescue equipment, to building and driving ambulances.

“I got my first trip in one at about 9 or 10 years old, accompanying my grandfather to the hospital here in Springfield,” Miller says. “One-hundred miles an hour, lights flashing, siren screaming, stopping traffic – I was pretty much hooked right there.”

Driven by that seminal ride-along, Miller began his career at age 16 as a draftsman, creating designs for vehicles, stretchers, flashing lights and other EMS equipment for Ozark Fire Extinguisher Co. At the same time, he was working on his evening project.

“That was the first ambulance I built, back in 1974,” Miller says. “It was what you’d call a driveway startup.”

Built along with his father, the old station-wagon style ambulance was eventually sold to Newton County – and then Miller convinced the county to hire him to drive it during the off-hours from his day job.

“I always wondered why people think there are only 50 or 60 hours to work in a week,” he says. “There are 168 hours in a week, and I always figured I could work most of them.”

After working as a part-time driver for Springfield’s Emergency Ambulance, Miller bought two vehicles when the owner left the business in 1975 and renamed it Miller Ambulance. He spent the next few years taking any request that came in, doing a lot of racetrack standbys and providing free ambulance service at Springfield high school football games.

While taking emergency calls, Miller piddled with production, building one or two cars a year under A.D. Miller Coach Co., and formed Miller Coach Co. Inc. in 1991. They began manufacturing ambulance units in earnest in the 1980s, producing the early prototypes of his innovative safety features that Miller says “were hideously ugly, but did their job.”

Since that time, he has manufactured EMS, TV news and other specialized vehicles in facilities as near as Spokane and Ozark, and as far away as Elkhart, Ind. The current Springfield shop was originally intended as a sales office, but in 2007 became the home of the current incarnation of Miller Coach.

Carving its niche in ambulance safety, Miller Coach last year recorded $4 million in revenue. The company exclusively manufactures Mercedes-Benz Sprinter ambulances, coupling Miller’s custom features with the reliability and efficiency of the brand. Starting with empty vans from Mercedes’ domestic plant in Charleston, S.C., Miller and his staff of eight equip the vehicles with custom cabinets, seats, electrical systems and stretcher mounts.

Safety first
The vehicles are built with features targeting EMT and patient safety, including custom under-seat cabinetry for heavy oxygen tanks to door-facing enclosures for secure storage of gear bags. On the exterior, custom rack arrays of flasher lights and runner-mounted LEDs improve visibility of vehicles, while electronic stability control technology from Mercedes-Benz makes the seemingly top-heavy sprinter vans safer than ever on the road.

All of these features are designed to reduce the incidence of unrestrained people and equipment becoming airborne during an accident – a primary cause of fatalities in an already-dangerous profession. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, ambulance workers face an on-the-job fatality rate double the national average, and they are eight to 10 times more likely to be involved in fatal traffic accidents than civilians.

The industry is beginning to take notice of Miller Coach’s one-of-a-kind features. In March, the EMS Safety Foundation honored the company with two Innovative Safety Awards – one for Miller’s patient-console-seating configuration for EMTs and one for its LED side and perimeter lighting.

Beyond safety, the added operational value of Miller Coach’s product comes via fuel efficiency and low maintenance costs. With the Mercedes Sprinters averaging 18-26 mpg, compared to the 8-12 mpg Miller says is common to box-style ambulances, he expects Sprinters will replace most traditional units within 15 years.

Last week, the company delivered two Mercedes-Benz ambulances to Mercy Springfield Communities, marking the first time the hospital has employed the Sprinter models in its regional fleet of 60 EMS vehicles.

Initially slated for inter-hospital patient transport, Mercy EMS Director Bob Patterson expects a significant operational cost savings from the two ambulances.

“The Mercedes chassis – though it’s new to us – is a good vehicle for this higher-speed, longer-distance usage we’re planning,” he says. “It will definitely exceed the mileage we’re getting from our other vehicles, and we’re hopeful we’ll see longer intervals between maintenance.”

Fading local craft
Stemming from a well-developed manufacturing base and central location, Springfield once held the unofficial title of Limousine Capital of the U.S., says Howard Fisk, president of J. Howard Fisk Limousines Inc., which operates a fleet of nearly 70 executive vehicles, limousines and motor coaches.

However, the recession and changes in customer demand have caused most of the dozen or so Springfield-based operations to close or relocate.

“Springfield once was considered the capital, but not anymore,” Fisk says. “Customer demands in the last decade have trended more toward the anonymity of SUVs, and there are simply not as many traditional limousine manufacturers nationwide.”

Miller says similar business moves are impacting the ambulance industry. When he started building, there were 84 competing companies nationwide. Today, that number has dropped to just a handful, following the recent acquisition and consolidation of several large manufacturers into a single operation managed by an investment holding company. Of the 6,000 ambulances Miller says are produced annually in the U.S., he estimates Florida-based Wheeled Coach Industries now controls roughly 80 percent of the domestic market.

Miller Coach now produces two or three of the $70,000 to $90,000 vehicles each week.

“When we first started with the Mercedes in 2007, I don’t think we made 20 of them that first year,” Miller says. “Our production has doubled several times over since then.”[[In-content Ad]]

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