120 Toronto hybrid-converted ambulances pulled off road as precaution after failures

Toronto Paramedic Services began a program to retrofit 120 ambulances with hybrid-electric drivelines. Three years later every system is being removed after two vehicle failures. Nick Westoll explains.

After two Toronto Paramedic Services ambulances retrofitted with hybrid-electric drivelines failed while moving at “highway speeds,” the municipality pulled 120 vehicles off the road as a safety precaution.

In response to questions by CityNews, officials confirmed a patient was onboard one of the two ambulances at the time. However, a spokesperson noted no one was injured during the incident.

A July 2023 memo obtained by CityNews said the first driveline failure happened in July 2022 and the second happened a year later. Both vehicles were determined to be inoperable. The memo said paramedic fleet technicians would disconnect the hybrid system on modified ambulances as an interim suggestion.

However, an internal update issued in mid-September said forensic engineers were brought in to inspect the retrofitted hybrid driveline systems. Drivelines bring the power to the axles and wheels from the engine and transmission.

“While we await further findings from the forensic engineering team, as a proactive measure, all XL hybrid ambulances will be swapped out in the coming days with spare units. In addition, efforts to return XL hybrid ambulances to original equipment manufacturer specifications will be expedited,” the update said.

“Ambulances that have had the hybrid-electric, assisted driveline systems removed will no longer have the “hybrid” label on the vehicles.”

Toronto Paramedic Services currently has more than 330 ambulances and emergency vehicles in its fleet. CityNews observed a large number of ambulances under guard by private security at an empty North York lot used for paramedic training. Mixed in the vehicles are ones identified as “hybrid.” A representative said Toronto Paramedic Services is waiting for parts so a portion of those vehicles can be operational.

In August 2020, the service received $1.1 million from the federal government toward putting solar panels on 275 vehicles and installing hybrid-electric driveline systems to replace gas-powered driveline systems. The news release said the driveline system retrofits should have an estimated life of 12 years. The total budget for the project was $2.8 million.

The contract was awarded to a company called Rowland Emergency Vehicle Products Inc. CityNews contacted the business to ask about the situation. A representative said the City of Toronto required bidders to use a third party’s specialty hybrid driveline systems. However, the spokesperson said that third-party company went out of business a year ago and repair parts or support to fix the problem are no longer available.

CityNews contacted Toronto Paramedic Services to ask for an on-camera interview to discuss the ongoing issue plaguing the service’s fleet, but a representative declined.

“Toronto Paramedic Services maintains our fleet to the highest standard. The hybrid drivetrain systems installed on affected Toronto Paramedic Services ambulances no longer meet this stringent standard and have been removed from service as a precaution to protect paramedic and public safety,” spokesperson Dineen Robinson said in a statement.

“Work is underway to convert vehicles to original operating systems to ensure they will operate safely. There has been no impact on service delivery to the public as a result of these vehicles being removed from service.”

RELATED: Toronto paramedics union issues code red as patients wait up to 8 hours for care

CityNews asked Robinson for information about the vendors, the costs involved with each vehicle conversion and the restoration to each one’s original state, information on what the vendor is doing to fix the issue and the company’s responsiveness, the impact to the City’s availability of working ambulances, and the timeline to fully resolve the issues.

Many of the questions weren’t addressed in a follow-up response received late Tuesday.

“Our comprehensive fleet plan incorporates redundancies to account for preventative maintenance and unanticipated repairs,” a response said in part.

“The safety of our staff and patients is our top priority. Paramedics receive advanced driver training to ensure the safety of our patients and the public at all times.

“We are continuing to work with the vendor to resolve this situation. However, to preserve the integrity of this process, we are unable to comment on matters related to the vendor.”

Toronto Coun. Stephen Holyday, who also chairs the municipality’s audit committee, said this issue is something that has “caught [his] attention” after CityNews asked about the situation.

“This is a public interest item. It’s about confidence in our emergency system,” he said while also citing ongoing reporting about longer 911 wait times and Toronto Paramedic Services staff shortages.

“The last thing Toronto Paramedic Services needs to worry about is whether or not the equipment is functioning as it should. That should be one easy thing to check off the list and I’m glad that they’re addressing it.”

Holyday said he was glad the service moved quickly to remove the vehicles off the road and to try to find a fix to get the fleet back on the road quickly. However, he said as he waits for City staff to deal with the contractual issues he hopes the matter gets reviewed.

“I’m quite confident a story like this will attract the attention of Councilors such as myself that oversee city business through council and people on the audit committee who think about these type of issues, and of course the City’s auditor general who will no (doubt) read the story with interest and consider whether there’s additional work to be done,” Holyday said.

“The questions I have are what lessons may be learned and applied going forward? The City’s fleet is very large and we’re talking about multiple millions of dollars and it’s important to stretch every dollar to have the best fleet possible in the safest fleet possible. That’s a matter of public safety, and a matter of safety for the workers.”

@TorontoMedics announced earlier today that we will retrofit our fleet for low carbon operations with help from @environmentca and @cityoftoronto . We thank both our Federal, and City partners for supporting our Service in reducing our carbon footprint through this project. pic.twitter.com/IqBSx8hILg

— Toronto Paramedic Services (@TorontoMedics) August 21, 2020

Proud to join partners from the Government of Canada to announce $1.1 million in federal funding from the Low Carbon Economy Fund towards our Toronto Paramedic Services Ambulance Retrofit Project. pic.twitter.com/PI9zsSFKz2

— John Tory (@JohnTory) August 21, 2020

This $2.8 million project is helping us:
✅Retrofit 104 ambulances with efficient hybrid electric powertrains
✅Install solar panels on the roof of 215 ambulances
✅Install 20-watt solar panels on the roof of 67 emergency response vehicles pic.twitter.com/6Q8dl2TU99

— John Tory (@JohnTory) August 21, 2020

We must continue to innovate and invest to transform Toronto into a low-carbon city. There is always more work to be done, but today’s announcement is a step forward.

— John Tory (@JohnTory) August 21, 2020

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