Idus E. Willis is remembered as a pioneer in the early days of EMS evolution in the State of Florida. He was born in Orlando and proudly served his country as a signalman in the United States Navy in 1944 during World War II.
In 1965, Idus E. Willis began his EMS career at Herndon Ambulance Service in Orlando, Florida starting as a driver. He was soon appointed supervisor and eventually became the general manager. By 1967, under his leadership, Herndon Ambulance Service had become the largest private ambulance provider in Florida, operating in six counties with more than one hundred units including Broward County. In 1969, Idus was able to raise sufficient capital to purchase the ambulance service as its sole owner. In the late 60's, manufacturers had begun to introduce the cheaper Chevrolet "Suburban" truck chassis as an alternative to the traditional more expensive Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick ambulance chassis.
By 1970 it became apparent that National would need to find a means for obtaining its growing demand for vehicles. That same year, National Ambulance Service Maintenance Shop experimented by converting several new GMC Suburban vehicles into ambulances. The first two vehicles were such a success that, by 1972, all vehicles in the Herndon fleet was being built in by Herndon's vehicle maintenance department. Other ambulance services quickly took notice of Herndon's vehicle conversion capabilities and ambulance vehicle orders from many other services began to come in. As a result, a new company was formed called National Ambulance Builders (NAB) to build ambulances for sales outside of Herndon's needs.
Herndon Ambulance Service also became the second private ambulance service to initiate a paramedic ambulance unit with Randle Eastern Ambulance Service in Miami being the first. Like the City of Miami and Jacksonville Fire Department Paramedic Rescue programs, the Herndon paramedics initially concentrated on the emergency care for cardiac patients. Randy Blalock was one of the initial Herndon ambulance personnel to be trained as a paramedic and staff the single Mobile Coronary care Unit (MCCU) that Herndon had deigned in a raised roof Dodge van vehicle.
In 1973, due to growth and expansion of both the ambulance service and ambulance manufacturing, National relocated to new facilities to Orlando's Fairvilla Road area and created a 6000 square foot factory on three acres. The new facility housed sales and manufacturing operations, as well as National's corporate offices. National Ambulance Builders continued with a 95% growth in sales from the manufacturing of both Chevrolet truck Suburban and Dodge "Tradesman" vans. In 1975, William C. "Bill" Clarke joined National as its first salesman and remained with the company for twenty five years eventually becoming the manager for nation-wide sales and managing the network of National Ambulance Builders distributors. Just as Bill Clark had greatly enhanced the sales and marketing ability of NAB, a few years later, Terry Vann would join the organization and become the creative genius behind the ambulance design, engineering and manufacturing success of National.
In 1976, National began buying aluminum modular bodies from a local commercial body builder to mount on its line of Type I and III chassis models. In 1978, National began building its own modular configurations and very quickly outgrew the Fairvilla Road facility. In 1984 the existing manufacturing operation was combined at a new facility which had opened at 230 North Ortman (off of Mercy Drive in West Orlando). The Fairvilla facility was vacated and another four and a half acres were added to the Ortman facility expanding to 72,000 square feet.
National then began to concentrate on developing a complete line of modular products made of aluminum extrusion and welded plate design configurations. Production was increased to 300 units per year and a new mid-range rescue vehicle line was also added along with the development of commercial wheelchair units. In the summer of 1985, National Ambulance Builders also purchased the former Samaritan Corporation in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. Samaritan had established small manufacturing facility which built the Atlanta Fire Departments original Squad 5 Hazmat Unit and remounted dozens of Type I Southern modular units unto new chassis. Samaritan was also the Georgia distributor for National Ambulance Builders. The late Bob Macaulay, former Vice-President for Sales for the late Peter Pirsch Fire Apparatus Corporation in Kenosha, Wisconsin, bought Samaritan from Willis a year later. In the mid 80's, Herndon Ambulance Service was sold to Rural Metro Corporation who then changed the name to American Medical Transport. Sadly, on October 16, 1990 William C. "Bill" Clarke passed away leaving a legend of great contributions to the NAB organization.
By 1990, National Ambulance Builders were producing four hundred units per year in all basic configurations and certified to KKK-1822B standards. By this time, National had also developed an ambulance market in both South and Central America. In addition, National also won a bid to supply NATO style field tactical ambulance vehicles for the Army of Kuwait. By 1992, National added a Rescue Vehicle Product line which allowed National to compete solidly in all facets of Fire, EMS, Haz-Mat and Bomb Squad vehicle requirements.
In 1999, a Philadelphia based company purchased National Ambulance Builders, closed the Orlando North Ortman facility and relocated all operations up North. Idus Willis would later pass away at the age of 84 on September 10, 2005 in Boynton Beach, Florida. Terry Vann continued on with another ambulance manufacturer to continue his ambulance engineering leadership. National Ambulance Builders along with Idus Willis, Bill Clarke and Terry Vann will long be remembered by our Nation's EMS as one of the legends in the arena of ambulance manufacturing. Such manufacturing legends also include the late, great Gordon K. Allen of Dallas, Ken Thompson of Modular Ambulance Corporation (MAC), Bob Macaulay of Peter Pirsch, Mark Van Arnam of Wheeled Coach/Collins, James Houston of Marietta, GA, among other greats of the industry.
Keywords: Idus Willis, National Ambulance Builders, National Ambulance Service, National Emergency Vehicles, Orlando, Florida EMS, Florida Ambulance, Randy Blalock, Terry Vann, Ken Thompson, Mark Van Arnum
Last Revision Date: 3/8/11 - 6:12 AM