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Focus On...Transportation

October 1, 2006
by Long-Term Living Editors
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Is There a New Bus (or Van) in Your Facility's Future? An interview with transportation expert Halsey King
    Resident-focused care does not stop at a facility's door. If transportation services are provided, care extends beyond the property into the local community and beyond. Whether a facility simply offers local, convenient trips or has advanced activity programming that includes educational and adventure travel for its residents, the first and foremost concern is resident safety-and that means vehicle safety. Whether it's a minivan or a small (16 passengers or less) or large bus, purchasing a facility vehicle is an expensive proposition. The question is: When is it time to revitalize your transportation? Is your vehicle still reliable and meeting your needs, or is it beginning to cost more to maintain than the value it provides?

To answer these questions, Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management recently asked Halsey King, president of Halsey King & Associates, maintenance educator, and speaker on transportation issues, for his advice.

When should a facility begin to think about replacing its current transportation vehicle?
King: Vehicles used in this capacity have a four-year life cycle, which is somewhat determined by U.S. government testing standards. Of course, a long-term care facility wouldn't automatically spend that kind of money every four years. This is an accelerated life cycle testing protocol that the government suggests is applicable on a nationwide scale. If a facility has an excellent maintenance program, good driver training, and a pleasant operating environment, that vehicle may last much longer than the four-year standard.

What are the first warning signs that a vehicle, whether it is a bus, van, minivan, or paratransit, is nearing the end of its usefulness?
King: The first thing that management will notice is the higher maintenance costs. It becomes more expensive to keep the vehicle on the road and out of the shop. Like your personal automobile, components will eventually wear out and need replacement. The savvy administrator will have to decide when it is more prudent to replace than rehab resident transportation.

Another trigger revolves around frequent and costly body and component maintenance. Generally, a vehicle with 150,000 miles of service will begin to have mechanical body issues. For instance, if the facility is in a northern climate, environmental conditions can affect the vehicle's body. Driving over salt-treated streets can rust out the muffler and exhaust system and other components under the bus.

In some cases, the last straw in the decision hinges on repeated problems and breakdowns on the road. Heaters don't keep the bus warm in the winter, and in summer the air-conditioning doesn't keep the interior cool. Your riders-your residents-get tired of complaining about these malfunctions and you, the administrator, become concerned about the continuing comfort and safety of the vehicle.

How long is it wise to keep "fixing" problems with the vehicle?
King: That is a judgment call. The bus may be perfectly operational, although a worn out driver's seat might make it uncomfortable for the driver. But a wheelchair lift leaking hydraulic oil-the very oil that makes it work properly-is an entirely different situation. If that leak goes unnoticed, it can seep under the interior linoleum or rubber flooring and attack the plywood floor underneath, making the bus floor very soft. In a small bus it will, in time, reach the back of the driver's seat, and when passengers board the bus it will feel like they are walking on bags of marshmallows. Again, other indicators that it's time to assess your transportation situation include frequent breakdowns and repeated road calls.

The warranty won't necessarily be the determining factor because when you match it against vehicle life, it's a footrace. Small buses (16 passenger or less), minivans, and vans are generally good up to 250,000 miles, but some vehicles go farther.

Should every facility provide some type of transportation service?
King: Operating transportation for a facility is costly. Do you want (or need) this level of service? This is the driving question. Convalescent facilities normally don't plan day outings. Their vehicles are used to provide basic transportation for those who are mobility impaired in lieu of contracting with an ambulance service. Other, generally larger facilities with a more active population may have a well-established transportation department that will take residents to the airport, casino outings, and the like.

What maintenance tips would you recommend to help keep a vehicle in top working order?
King: If you buy a passenger transport vehicle but don't want to maintain it, contract with a local garage owner who understands bus technology and maintenance. Provide him with all the maintenance information pertinent to your bus or van, since the vehicle is a composite of different manufacturers. The maintenance facility will need this information to contact them for parts. For example, if there is a problem with the wheelchair lift, the chassis manufacturer won't be able to help.