The Sprinter gives BUMBLEance the Christmas buzz

In our second edition of ‘The Sprinter: Making Christmas happen for 25 years’ we speak to Tony Heffernan, founder of BUMBLEance, Children's Ambulance Service. BUMBLEance is the worlds first interactive children's ambulance service and has now been in operation for 7 years. Tony shares with us how the idea for BUMBLEance came about, his love of Mercedes-Benz vehicles and an insight into the incredible work they do for the betterment of society.

Tell me about BUMBLEance and the work you do?


The Saorise Foundation charity was founded in 2010 following the diagnosis of our daughter with a rare condition called Batten disease. This is a debilitating condition which has no cure or treatment to save her life. We lost Saoirse in January 2011, at the age of 5 years old. Saoirse suffered significantly from this condition and it often ended up with her in the back of ambulances. Saoirse was an outgoing little lady, who had no fear in life, except the fright when she’d come around after a seizure in the back of an ambulance. That was the only thing that used to scare her, apart from that she was a people person and loved life. When we travelled from Kerry to Dublin to attend hospital appointments, those journeys which would usually take 5 hours before Batten Disease entered our lives, thereafter it was taking us anywhere up to 8-10 hours, depending on her needs. After her death, myself and my wife Mary said there must be a better way to transport kids in child friendly, fun and safe vehicles, so we created the idea of BUMBLEance in 2013.


When I came up with the idea I reached out to various different people. I had the name, I had the concept, I even had a second-hand ambulance chassis that I was going to use. One of the first calls I made was to Fergus Conheady (Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle Sales Manager), who put me contact with Wilker ambulance builders in Offaly. I then brought this crazy idea that I wanted ambulances which were child friendly from the outside in. I wanted a reliable, brand new chassis with a couple of extras and then I also wanted to put PlayStations, Wi-Fi, and all the other modern technologies into the back of the ambulance at the same time, hiding all the medical stuff from the children where possible. I think they looked at me like I was a bit mad! But they persevered and no one said no.


I wanted the ambulance within a few months, not in a year as standard with ambulances. Fergus accelerated the chassis delivery time from the factory in Germany and we got it to Wilkers for build. Then on the 23rd of September 2013 we launched BUMBLEance at Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Dublin.

How long have you been a Mercedes-Benz customer?

Since 2013 when we bought our first Sprinter chassis. Since then we’ve purchased many Mercedes-Benz vehicles. We have 13 in our fleet of BUMBLEances, 9 of which are Sprinters, 2 are Vitos, with another Sprinter entering the fleet in December. Two more brand new ones are then coming in January 2021. We also have 2 Mercedes-Benz support vehicles which are a Vito and a Citan. Our entire charity owned fleet are all Mercedes-Benz and it will remain like this!
 

How did your relationship with Mercedes-Benz begin?

A friend of our family put me in contact with Fergus Conheady of Mercedes-Benz.  We were looking at chassis’ in the general market, where there were loads of potential brands. But I said, ‘why can’t the children be travelling in a premium brand vehicle’. I’ve always had an affinity for the reliability and flexibility of Mercedes from my own personal life.  I’ve always wanted a G-wagon – which no one has donated to me yet!

So, I spoke to Greg & Martin Kerrigan in Wilker and asked them for their advice on what was the best, most-robust chassis and they said don’t look past Mercedes-Benz. That is what sealed the deal for us to purchase our first Sprinter.

The relationship with Mercedes is hugely important to us. We acknowledge Mercedes-Benz as a core partner on the side of our vehicles and have done this from day 1. This is a long-term relationship, working together for the betterment of society.

The biggest thing about our relationship, is that at the end of the phone we have not just a supplier, but a friend. We keep pushing the design of BUMBLEance and when I go to Mercedes-Benz with a new idea to add further stuff, it’s not just for the safety and comfort of the children, which is our priority, but we also add stuff in the cab for our crews. All the vehicles that we’ve purchased recently have cruise control, automatic gearboxes, speed limiters, built in satellite navigation and all the other functions that you get extra flexibility from with Mercedes; bigger batteries and bigger fuel tanks. That all adds to reducing the stress of our team. We add optional extras into our fleet that are historically never seen on ambulances, but we are pushing the envelope with the help of Mercedes-Benz.

What is the most attractive thing about the Sprinter?

The ability and the range of the Sprinter chassis, because you can have a regular ambulance sized chassis or in our case we have recently purchased a Sprinter panel van and a BUMBLEance chassis both capable of going up to 5.5 tonnes. Normally other ambulances vehicles only go from about 3.5 tonnes up to 5 tonnes, but with Mercedes we’ve been able to over-engineer our vehicles to have bigger engines, automatic transmission and a lot of extras, which allows us to build a vehicle that has bigger capacity than we need by minimum design. This all increases the robustness of the fleet and we see a prolonged life for our vehicles as a positive result. A lot of ambulance operators who build Sprinter chassis’ have different policies and procedures to retire their vehicles after 4-5 years. We are seeing now that our first vehicle is 7-years-old and it would be premature to retire it because we believe there is further reliable life left in the vehicle.  

From the driver’s point of view, the stability of the vehicle on the road and the comfort would be the most attractive things about the Sprinter. The driver’s only ever comment on the Sprinter positively. Overall, the drivers do appreciate the extra bit of sturdiness and robustness of the vehicle itself. Drivers really enjoy our vehicles, there easy to drive and most comfortable.

What is the primary function that the Sprinter is used for in your fleet?

BUMBLEance have several services:


• We started to work in partnership with the National Ambulance Service with a vehicle we placed with them several years ago for Children’s Critical Care. This is for the retrieval of children with life threatening symptoms.
• Our long wheel base units, known as ICV – Intermediate Care & Urgent Care Vehicles: which retrieves children with severe complications and difficult conditions to bring them in and out of hospital for appointments and transfers between Urgent Care centres (A&E) and inter hospital transfers.
• Pre- and post-surgery and transplant procedures transfers.
• Angel Trips – bringing children home to die. This was something that wasn’t there for ourselves for our daughter Saoirse. This is used every month – it is a constant.
• Chemo Cab – bringing children in and out of hospital for Chemotherapy.
• Some work with aircraft, with the Irish Air Corps and our own BUMBLEair services.


What we do is provide a safe, secure, fun service, offering care and compassion in equal measure. Our youngest client has been less than a couple of hours old, just a couple of kilos in weight, all the way up to very large teenagers, over 6 feet tall. We cater for all of them as best we can. 


A lot of the children can’t wait to get onboard, often at home looking out the window for the BUMBLEance to arrive, then while they are in hospital, they seem to focus on getting back into the BUMBLEance to get home safely – it’s like medicine on wheels.
 

Where is your fleet in operation?

Our fleet is used daily, every week we are on the go from various bases around the country. When we started the service, we had one vehicle based in Leinster. Currently, we have 2 in the North-West, 1 in the Western region, 1 in the Mid-West, 2 in the South, 1 in the South-East, 3 in Dublin and another 3 vehicles working with the NAS in Dublin.

Our vehicles clock up at least 75,000km per year. We’ve hit 120,000km per year with some of our vehicles. Every week it varies, but they could clock up in excess of 1200-1800km each per week.

We then have 9 #BeeTeam members directly employed under the Saoirse Foundation for our services. We also have additional drivers coming in and out for relief work. On top of that pool of employees we also have some volunteer drivers who support our services. 

How has COVID-19 impacted BUMBLEance and your daily operations?

We’ve remained operational throughout it all. COVID-19 has created challenges for us that required us to evolve and adapt. Many of the children we transport already have a depleted immune system and irrespective of Covid, our policies and procedures around this infection and hygiene has allowed us to continue to roll and to get these children in and out of hospital safely in sanitized, secure vehicles. That’s the positive of it all. We’re not going to let this virus impact us too much to the detriment of these kids who continue to get treatments.

A positive story to come out of Covid, was when companies were letting staff go during the first lockdown, there was one gentleman, Liam Mulcahy from Limerick, whose daughter used BUMBLEance before she passed away. During that lockdown he volunteered for the first 6 weeks to help us get our new hub in the Mid-West set-up. Liam drove one of our Sprinters in his local region and his daughter was his driving light. It’s the community coming together – this is someone who used our services and paid it back by this support.

We have also had some difficulties with COVID-19. Fundraising is the biggest challenge because we rely on donations. Normally we would fundraise in person at events but we’ve had to move online for this. Fundraising remains our biggest challenge. 

Is Christmas a particularly busy time for BUMBLEance?

Before the Christmas break a lot of the children’s outpatient appointments are closed for the Christmas period, so there’s usually a peak just before that. Then we are busy helping sick children get home for Christmas.

We remain operational throughout the Christmas period and we are always on standby for some last-minute calls, especially for any Angel Trips. We’ve seen it in the past where we have our staff out working on Christmas day – they are all committed to keeping the show going and if we get a call for our services over Christmas we will always be there.

A child’s needs don’t change just because it’s the holidays, so all focus is on keeping each individual child safe and secure. We might deliver the children in a Santa hat, but we try not to let weather or seasons affect us too much and we just hope all of our people can get home to their own families to enjoy Christmas. 

These families rely on us – we want to continue to deliver a reliable service and that’s why we always choose the Sprinter.

 Is the Sprinter a key player in making Christmas happen for BUMBLEance?

The Sprinter is like the reliability of the seasons – it’s there always! It is always there for us. Without the Sprinter we wouldn’t be operating. The Sprinter is our day to day – our bread and butter. 

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