Shelby Akers never wanted to leave the coal industry.
Akers has been in the industry for 30 years, and it wasn’t long after he began when he founded Dewar of Virginia, the Princeton-based operation which produces various types of equipment for coal mining companies.
But by 2013, he knew branching out to non-coal industries was vital if Dewar and its employees, which continued to dwindle in number, were to survive in a changing economy. He found the unexpected idea for providing a jolt to his business at an unlikely place: a visit to his chiropractor, Dr. Randy Maxwell.
“One day he said, ‘Would you be interested in diversifying?’” Akers said. “We got to talking and he told me that back injuries for emergency medical technicians are astronomical.”
It didn’t take long for Maxwell to direct him to a potential customer. Randy Brown, chief operating officer at the Princeton Rescue Squad, was in for an appointment of his own. Brown wanted someone to develop a technology that would do much of the heavy lifting of patients for EMTs, reducing the strain they experience on their back throughout their career.
That fateful encounter got the wheels turning for Austin LuLit Power Lift Systems to open for business.
The Princeton company, which Akers oversees as president, provides hydraulic lifts for ambulances. A lift is installed in the back of the ambulance, and with the simple press of a button, it will lock the stretcher into place and slide the patient safely into the vehicle.
Akers said the core benefit of the technology is removing much of the burden of lifting the patient into the ambulance from the EMTs, reducing their chances of encountering a career-ending back injury.
The Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority jumped on the lift technology recently, purchasing two in November for $30,000, according to Brent Burger, the authority’s director of support services. Brown’s Princeton Rescue Squad bought one of its own shortly afterward.
Burger said he didn’t know about the lift system until Akers gave him a cold call.
“He showed us their design, and there was really nothing comparable to it,” Burger said. “With [the lift], medics don’t have to do as much.”
For such an attractive concept to EMTs, however, competitors haven’t exactly flooded West Virginia. Burger said Stryker EMS, a provider of patient transport products based in Michigan, offers a similar lift but he was particularly impressed with the LuLit power lift and its extra strength.
“There’s definitely not as much of a market out there as there could be,” Burger said. “And it’s been excellent, so far. No complaints.”
Akers saw an untapped market with an obvious need when he first talked to Brown. Brown gave him input on the design of the lift, and Akers relayed the information to his engineering staff. Despite having more familiarity with coal mining equipment than emergency transport products, the crew handed over the drawings of the original LuLit power lift a few weeks later.
“I went over to Princeton Rescue Squad [with the drawings], and they said, ‘Man, if you can make that happen, we’ll buy that,’” Akers said. “So three years later, we’ve got a part for them to use.”
The process for creating a working hydraulic lift wasn’t easy. When dealing with equipment that is put to use as someone’s life hangs in the balance, careful considerations have to be made to guarantee both functionality and safety, according to Akers.
“It was a lot of trial and error, to be honest with you,” he said. “We made a couple of nice working parts, but it just wasn’t exactly how we wanted it, because we knew we could make it better and more functional.”
Austin LuLit Power Lift Systems went through more than 20 designs to get to its current lift, and has made the rounds showing off the lift in the past few months. In September, it was to event-goers at the Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads Conference at Virginia Beach. In October, it was at the North Carolina EMS Convention. They set up a booth to demonstrate the lift’s technology at each event, even with audience participation. Akers said everyone knows each other in the EMS industry, making outreach and demonstrations a crucial part of the business.
The technology has been well-received, so far, according to Akers. EMTs in Princeton and Kanawha County have told him their careers could be extended by several years with the lift taking care of much of the physical labor. In mountainous West Virginia, EMTs often deal with moving a patient into an ambulance parked on a steep hill, too, which adds an extra challenge to the job for those without a hydraulic lift.
“One of the guys that works for Kanawha told me that this is the first time he’s been working where he could go home and sit down and his back wasn’t hurting,” Akers said. “That makes you feel good.”
Although the lift is used for all patients, it’s especially useful for larger patients, according to Burger. This, too, is especially vital in the Mountain State, which is tied for the second highest obesity rate in the United States, at 35.6 percent, according to a September report from The State of Obesity project.
“I can’t imagine having to get someone that is 600 pounds into the ambulance if I was smaller in size,” Akers said. “Lifting 600 pounds in that situation would be hard on anybody, especially if that ambulance is on a hill pointing up or pointing down.”
Reach Max Garland at email@example.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.