Learning to love electric in London

Catherine Levin writes about London’s electric vehicle journey in the June issue of Emergency Services Times

The twin goals of improving air quality through the Mayor’s ULEZ scheme and the Government’s aim to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 drive the strategic direction of the blue light fleets in London. I talk to the fleet managers for London Fire Brigade and London Ambulance Service to find out how they are meeting these environmental ambitions and find they face many common challenges.

The one-way systems of south London are a mystery to me as a long-term North London resident, which is why accompanying an officer from London Fire Brigade in one of its new VW iD3 electric vehicles for a test drive has an added thrill. I’ve immersed myself in the world of electric vehicles for this issue and I learn a lot from being in one.

Lots of people don’t like driving in London; it’s busy, complex and much of the time incredibly slow, as our journey around the streets near London Fire Brigade’s headquarters demonstrates. Knowing that we’re not belching out diesel fumes into the air is satisfying and with London Mayor, Sadiq Khan about to extend the ultra-low emission zone to embrace all London boroughs, London’s air quality is improving as a result.

Investing in light fleet

Staff Officer Sylvia Dias is driving one of the Brigade’s new EVs and benefiting from an investment in the light fleet that will see 50 iD3s gracing the streets of London. She’s a big fan and shares the benefits she’s already seen despite only having been using the car for a few weeks. She tells me, “Acceleration is fantastic. You literally just touch the accelerator, and it picks up speed so quickly. I’m really impressed; for my first experience of an all-electric vehicle, it is lovely to drive.”

The LFB branded iD3 can be spotted in London along with the London Ambulance Service’s electric car – the Ford Mustang. I didn’t get to go in the Mustang but talking to LAS Fleet Manager, Rob MacIntosh, I heard about how well its bedding down with the capital’s paramedics. So far, LAS has invested in 42 Mustangs and they are providing its rapid response capability across London.

These light vehicles are blazing a trail in London, reducing carbon footprints and helping improve air quality but the real emissions challenge lies in the heavy fleet: the fire engine and the ambulance.

Boosting air quality

Under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Greater London Authority, London Ambulance Service and London Fire Brigade have an exemption from the ULEZ that dates to when it was originally launched in the central parts of the capital. Where vehicles don’t meet a particular emissions threshold, they attract a hefty charge for the pleasure of driving into London and this is acting as a deterrent for people to use their cars and a spur to those who live in the ULEZ to swap out older vehicles for cleaner equivalents.

Both services were given longer time than other vehicle owners to bring their fleets up to greener emission standards.  Rob MacIntosh says that they could have achieved compliance with the ULEZ by buying modern diesel or petrol vehicles but decided that they would go further by focusing on electric. The decision to go with a lightweight diesel ULEZ compliant Ford ambulance is the steppingstone to electric. “Anything we buy now has got to last seven years, so these would be up for renewal in 2030 anyway,” he explains.

Vic Macias, London Fire Brigade’s Head of Engineering who oversees fleet operations in the Brigade says that it is currently 91 per cent ULEZ compliant, pushing that up to 95 per cent by August. “We can prove we’ve got a build plan to replace non-compliant vehicles, but of course you can’t just buy a fire engine off the shelf, we must get them built and fitted out for us. We are well ahead of the game given the specialist nature of the fleet.” By the end of autumn this year, Rob says they too will be 95 per cent ULEZ compliant.

The journey to all electric

Being ULEZ compliant doesn’t mean the fleet is all electric. Vic says the ambition is, “To be zero emission capable while still providing the most effective and efficient tools to do the job.”  One example of how LFB has moved towards this goal is with the tools it uses in all areas of its operations; long gone are the diesel fuelled, carbon emitting tools as the electric alternatives have been introduced over time. By 2025 the goal is to make the light fleet carbon zero.

He and his team based in headquarters oversee the contract with Babcock where in 2014 the Brigade signed a 21-year deal to manage the fleet and the Brigade owns the vehicles. In 2016, LFB bought BMW i3 hybrid cars and learned that most of their journeys were electric and that the car’s 80-mile range worked for them. The learning from that experience has informed the move to electric not only in terms of capability but confidence as operational experience demonstrated that drivers rarely if ever used the diesel back up.

Achieving the zero-emission capable goal requires a mixed approach of hybrid, electric and hydrogen and that’s not cheap. In the last two years, LAS has spent £32m on vehicles and electrical infrastructure. The Brigade’s funding comes partly from the Mayor of London, and they have a funding bid in with the mayor right now but of course they are competing with the same needs from other members of the GLA family that includes the much bigger Metropolitan Police.

The challenge of the electric ambulance

Half of LAS’s 1200 vehicles are front line ambulances and so far, LAS has ordered four electric Ford Transit ambulances that will be delivered later in the summer. “They will be the first Original Equipment (OE) electric ambulances and we will be trialling them throughout the autumn and winter months,” Rob explains.  

Rob is excited about the future of electric fleet and wants to see innovation in the ambulance market while acknowledging that until there is more choice, “The next best thing is to get the weight down. Reducing the weight will reduce our emissions and reduce our fuel.” He adds that LAS has taken 1.5 tonnes of weight out of the current ambulance, “A significant amount and yet providing the same response for the patient.”

I query how they have done this. Rob responds laughing, saying that it will take another half an hour to go through it, but summarises it well, starting with the removal of the power-hungry tail lift. Doing this will, says Rob, “Literally take miles off the battery life” as it is used many times in one shift. LAS has moved over to a new patient loading system using the Stryker Power Pro stretcher and a carry chair with tracks on that comes up the rear steps of the ambulance without the need for a lift.

“We worked with the vehicle converters to make a lightweight box with all the cupboards and insides constructed from the lightest material. We talked to our clinical staff to see how we could reduce the equipment on board, questioning every single item and asking if it was needed. They have the same kit but less quantities.”

It’s encouraging to hear about how engaged LAS staff have been in the process of evolving the ambulance to help reduce emissions including seeing the ambulance being built. LAS received its first lightweight ambulance at its Waterloo hub on the day of our interview. Fresh from this, Rob said he was delighted at staff’s reaction to this significant change. “They absolutely loved it.”

The market for electric fire engines

There are 188 frontline pumping appliances which added to other support vehicles sees the Brigade’s heavy fleet totalling 257 vehicles. If 95 per cent of these are ULEZ compliant by August this year and yet only one is zero emission capable with seven years to go until diesel versions are no longer sold in the UK, what is Vic’s plan for speeding up the roll out of the new fleet?

“It’s a challenge because the market is not there yet,” responds Vic, echoing what Rob MacIntosh said about ambulances. “It’s not giving us the range, apart from the one we are trialing from Emergency One. It gives us over 200 miles and can pump for four hours on a single electric charge.”

The Zero Emission Pumping Appliance (ZEPA) was launched with much fanfare last year. The ZEPA is a hybrid because it has a petrol generator as a backup, but Vic says that the aim is to see if this vehicle can manage just using the electric power, while still meeting operational needs during this two-year concept trial much like the approach they took with the BMW i3 hybrid car. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is also testing out the ZEPA, having proudly shown this at The Emergency Service Show last year.

The journey to get the ZEPA operational started back in 2018 and Vic explains there is a complexity in getting it on the road. The ZEPA is based at Hammersmith fire station. Chosen because it’s near the workshop for maintenance; it’s a busy station with a lot of demand that will help test out how resilient it is.


We talk about whether staff need training to drive an electric ambulance. Rob says it’s more of a familiarisation piece, particularly around the difference in acceleration. Range anxiety is another concern staff have and once staff have spent some time using an electric vehicle, this quickly recedes as their confidence grows.


LFB installed 113 charge posts with double chargers across its estate as part of the i3 rollout and more recently installed a larger 150kw charger in Hammersmith but as part of the ZEPA trial, it is looking to see if the evidence of use shows its right for them. Both the Brigade and LAS are looking at their estates to see whether they need to invest in electricity sub stations to meet the demands and there’s clearly an economy of scale to be had through a joined-up pan London approach that would embrace the Met’s needs as well.

The charging infrastructure is critical to make sure the electric fleet remains operational. Rob says they surveyed the LAS estate to work out how much electricity was available at each site. So far, they have installed 12 install 21kw chargers for fast charging and plan to expand this to 41 fast response sites across London. He explains, “Between midnight and 0600 our crews return to stand by on station. We have found we get an adequate charging period during that time, and we haven’t once had to take a vehicle off the road because it has run out of charge.”

The ambulances need more power than the Mustangs. Some sites will have 50kw charging capacity but that may require new electrical sub stations to be created. Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital has installed the charger specifically for the ambulance. It means that one less combustion engine ambulance waiting outside their hospital. While the paramedics are handing over their patient to the hospital, the battery can be charged up to 80 per cent capacity within 40 minutes.

Sharing the learning with others

Vic says he is keen to share the learning from the London experience with fire and rescue services across the UK. The Transport Operators Group meets monthly and it’s the ideal forum to share the learning.

Rob manages the fleet managers group for the UK and they are watching with interest. He hopes to have the ambulance on display at The Emergency Services Show in September, keen to share it with ambulance staff from across the country.

Next steps

Early next year, Ford will bring out the same chassis but with a larger range battery. Rob is confident that if the trials go well in central London, then the extended range battery in the Ford Transit will suit their purposes across London when they come to buy more. LAS is taking a steppingstone approach which allows the current combustion engine ambulances to be swapped out with electric.

For the Brigade, the trial of the ZEPA continues and, adding the learning from this to what the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is discovering in quite different terrain, manufacturer Emergency One will have plenty of evidence to make improvements that will benefit other fire and rescue services who no doubt will be looking on with great interest.

It’s clear from these conversations that there is a huge commitment to delivering an electric fleet to deliver the environmental benefits we all want to see; the journey to get there is a long one but with the enthusiasm of Rob and Vic, London is in good hands.



Photo credit: London Ambulance Service. Rob MacIntosh next to one of LAS’s Ford Mustangs.