Community Ambulance and the infamous “Tuna Trucks”
Kansas City MO
C.W. “Charlie” Sievers was laying tile floors for a living in the late 1950’s. He had a contract where he laid the decorative entrance floors in the VA Hospitals. While on a trip back home from work one afternoon Charlie witnessed a serious automobile accident. Helping the inured people that were involved in this terrible accident was the spark he had for starting a business of emergency medical transport.
Charlie launched Community Ambulance and like all small businesses, initial seed money was limited. Charlie discovered that through Roanoke Leasing of Kansas City he could purchase new ambulances and pay for them monthly. This solved the problem of having to buy a vehicle and pay for it up front which was a costly expenditure and one which many smaller companies could not afford.
Pictures below is Jim Brown with Community Ambulance Services’ 1964 Hess & Eisenhardts 42” Parkway Ambulance.
Jim Brown recalls his days at Community Ambulance by sharing this bit of history,
I worked with Charlie’s son Gary Sievers a few times when I first went to work for Community Ambulance. I wasn’t even 18 years old and would work after school, on weekends, and during my summer vacation. It was a very different kind of operation than ambulance services today. You were basically required to live where the ambulance was stationed. Typically the driver of the ambulance was in charge and lived in a rented house in the area the ambulance covered. Depending on the driver, the attendant either lived in a spare room or rented living space close by. When you received a call, the driver would pick you up.
The very first weekend which I worked the driver and me where housed in a rented room in a closed motel that had been converted into low rent apartments next to the Smoke Stack Barbeque restaurant at 81st and Prospect. In the room were 2 beds a phone, a TV and a bathroom.
You showed your work time on a truck drivers log book. Hours idle showed as a horizontal line across time indications then when you were on a run your line dropped down and continued until the run was over, then the line returned to the upper “stand by” scale. Whatever your time showed you were still paid by the call.
In ’65 as an attendant, I made $3.00 for a regular call and $1.50 for a VA call. Community Ambulance always submitted the lowest bid for the Veterans Hospital contract and we made a lot of those calls. I worked in a few different locations initially, but I lucked out since I lived north of the Missouri river and was assigned to fill in at the North Kansas City location. Norman Scrogham was the driver there, he didn’t have any problems with the attendant sleeping in a spare room and he was just a lot of fun to be around and work with. My summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I worked 24/7 with Norman all summer long. We had a very small basement apartment in North Kansas City and we had a ball. I really didn’t want to stop and go back to school, but I did. I think that when I went to work for Physicians Exchange in ’66 , I made $80.00 a week for a 55 hrs…… 4 10 hrs and 1 15 hr.
It’s hard to imagine such young crew members with little or no medical training operating these expensive professional ambulances, and although these professional car-based ambulances were really nice they were the standard during this time period.
The fact auto leasing was relatively new around this time also allowed for increased sales of these vehicles which also in turn helped small businesses the opportunity to have new vehicles. The lease terms were simple and straight forward but there was a clause in the contract that owners were responsible for any damage and repairs.
Below Charlie, Lola, and Kathy Sievers taking delivery of their new 1968 Hess & and Eisenardt Parkway Ambulance.
After several years of operating these expensive passenger based ambulances, which although were very nice, they were just too costly to maintain. Constantly exasperated about his drivers always backing into objects or other incidents that required costly Cadillac repairs Charlie searched for a solution.
To his credit when the very first Ford Econoline Van came out he converted one into an ambulance. Everyone thought he had lost his mind but as history now shows it wasn’t but a few years later that Van ambulances became the standard.
Then with the ever increasing vehicle space requirements by the Federal Government and Charlie’s fondness of big trucks coupled with a penchant to go his own way, Charlie designed and built what would infamously become known throughout Kansas City as the “Tuna Trucks”
At some point in his life Charlie drove tractor trailers (Big rigs) and he had maintained a fondness for the large rigs. It was this “fondness” that came in handy when he went to build these homemade ambulances. Buying used cargo trucks he modified them the best he could.
So different were these large trucks compared to professional vehicle based passenger car ambulances the rear doors on these huge ambulances were very high off the ground. The loading height at the rear of the box was so high and long in fact Charlie actually cut sections out from the chassis and reversed the leaf springs and shackles to lower the rear end, but steps and a ramp were still required to get the stretchers into the patient compartment. The very first of Charlie’s truck ambulance’s actually had a wrought iron railing and porch lights on the rear load area. He even bought a hydraulic lift gate and installed it on one of the subsequent trucks. Unknown to Charlie these crude ambulances were the very early predecessor of what would also eventually become standard in the industry many years later. Charlie was just way head of his time
(Above) An early “Tuna Truck” Ambulance (Notice the wood ramps on the back steps which were used for loading and unloading the stretchers as the back doors were so high off the ground)
These “Tuna Truck” ambulances carried an electrical generator that produced more than enough electricity for the whole unit. Regular residential air conditioner units were installed onboard and worked so efficiently that crews complained about being frozen out in the summer time. The generators were chained in place after one sheared its mounting bolts and fell completely out into the street during a run. None of these trucks had power steering and Charlie’s reasoning besides it being an extra expense was if you weren’t strong enough to steer these trucks, you weren’t strong enough lift an ambulance cot. These trucks started out with “West Coast” style mirrors which were soon torn off the sides of the cabs. To replace these, Charlie fashioned mirrors from long aluminum tubes with a 5″ convex mirror bolted on the end.
Charlie was not fond of the cost / repairs of rotating warning lights so none of these Tuna Trucks had rotating beacons. Instead on the cab front and each corner of the box, there were commercial headlight mounted bezels, each with two lights, a red and a white. Each of these was activated with a key switch on the dashboard, so there where something like 6 to 8 switches that had to be turned on when going on an emergency response.
As for the name “Tuna Truck”, at the time StarKist Tuna was running TV commercials using their famous cartoon spokesman “Charlie the Tuna” who wearing a Greek fisherman’s hat and coke-bottle glasses, has a goal to be caught by the StarKist company. “Charlie the Tuna” believes that he is so hip and cultured that he has “good taste,” and thus thinks he is the perfect tuna for StarKist. Charlie is always rejected in the form of a note attached to a fish hook that says, “Sorry, Charlie.”
It was said that Charlie Sievers first hand built / homemade truck Ambulance was so ungodly ugly that one of his employees who first saw it said “Sorry Charlie” and thus the name of the “Tuna Truck” was born. This name stuck and was used by everyone in the industry, including police, fire, and EMS.
Charlie always operated from a different perspective but his devotion to his ideas was only second to his devotion to his family. Many times his family was right by his side sharing and working on their dreams together. In the case of Community Ambulance, Charlie, his wife, two daughters, a son (Gary), the in-law’s all lived right in the middle of it all. With only a curtain separating the business from the room where they actually lived the accommodations were cramped but together they made many sacrifices to keep the business operating. When the kids were small it was often oatmeal and jelly for breakfast, when the kids were older it was still oatmeal and jelly for breakfast but together they grew stronger as a family and shared the hardships of small business ownership.
The employees were right alongside working hard and becoming unwittingly participants to a part of Kansas City history as operators of those now infamous “Tuna Trucks”. Looking back today we can only image the last thing on their minds was making history when trying to turn a sharp corner on a “run” and pulling hard on the steering wheel to get those large trucks around the turn. I’m sure their main priority at that time was probably trying to keep the cussing low enough that nobody heard them.
Community Ambulance Company was sold around 1978 To Eugene Desaulniers, Larry Hughes, and Hadley Reimel who then combined their own companies and Community Ambulance to create Ambulance Services Inc. This brought an end to Community Ambulance Service and a chapter in Kansas City Ambulance History.
Community Ambulance was able to sell all the trucks but one. Charlie went into scrap metal business. Unit #110 which was not sold had the box removed off the back and the actual box (compartment) went on to become chicken house. The truck itself was then was fitted with a flat bed and a winch was installed.
Community Ambulance supported several families when it was in operation which is a testament to the hard working people of that time who made great sacrifices to provide transportation and medical care to the people of Kansas City.
This article is a historic perspective to record that chapter in history and to remember a great innovator in Ambulance service. Our deepest gratitude to Charlie Sivers and Community Ambulance! Thanks also to Steve Loftin for the large photos of the “Tuna Truck”.
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