Retired Ill. ambulance has new home in Ukraine firehouse

Naperville's International MedTec series 4300 rig had been a reserve vehicle, was destined for Mexico, then went to a Ukrainian hospital before its current location


By Suzanne Baker
Chicago Tribune

NAPERVILLE, Ill. — A retired Naperville ambulance has a new home in one of the bays of the Cherkasy Fire Department in central Ukraine.

It’s been quite the journey for the International MedTec series 4300, which originally was headed to Naperville’s sister city of Cancun, Mexico.

Now the ambulance is located 800 miles from another Naperville sister city, Nitra, Slovakia.

The Rotary Club of Naperville approached Naperville Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis in the spring about whether the city had any ambulances to donate to Ukraine through the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America. If they did, the club could fund the cost of transporting it, officials told him.

As it happened, the city did have one sitting in a public works garage, Puknaitis said.

The ambulance, purchased by the city in October 2009, used in active service for seven years and then as a reserve vehicle for four years, had been destined for Cancun. But after more than a year, the Mexican resort city had yet to make arrangements to pick it up, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic and a change in the local government.

In June, the Naperville City Council pivoted and opted to donate it to Ukraine instead.

A month later it was on a ship to Germany, transported to Poland and then driven by Rotarians into Ukraine, according to Chris Mason, who coordinated the transportation logistics.

Mason, a government relations for Peoria-based OSF HealthCare, said fire departments in Ukraine respond to the same kinds of calls as U.S. firefighters — traffic crashes, fires, medical situations and other emergencies.

“Then add on top of that, missile strikes that destroy neighborhoods, buildings and cause explosions,” Mason said.


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Firefighters also help with clearing mines, he said.

The donated equipment is essential in dealing with the challenges, Mason said, especially with the onset of winter and a sketchy power grid.

“They’re dealing with an uptick or an increase in structure fires because people are having (to use) their own generators. You have gasoline; you have combustible materials. You have people that don’t do things properly,” he said.

On top of that, circuits are getting overloaded and sparking fires, he said.

Initially, the Naperville ambulance — with 51,161 odometer miles and 4,124 engine hours — was sent to a Ukrainian hospital but it was too large for the facility’s needs, Mason said.

At the same time, the Cherkasy Fire Department was seeking a rig to handle medical situations resulting from building collapses, mine clearing operations and other heavy operations.

When Mason was able to find a smaller ambulance to better meet the hospital’s needs, the Naperville ambulance was free to go to the fire department, he said.

The vehicle was equipped with everything the department had planned to send to Cancun, including fire gear, helmets, gloves, air tanks, air bottles and medical equipment. While still operational, the equipment was no longer compliant with National Fire Protection Association standards, according to Scott Salela, Naperville’s division chief of support services.

Mason said it’s amazing to see how Ukraine is dealing with the war, even after Russia’s retreat.

“I’ve been asked for basic firefighting equipment like axes and other handheld tools because literally the Russians take everything when they leave,” he said.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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