Ambulances are not sitting in the parking lot to avoid working!
Many Emergency medical service (EMS) systems use a “posting” system to distribute their vehicles in an area. Their goal is to have ambulances strategically placed around town so that they can get to anyone, anywhere in the shortest amount of time. A “post” as it is referred to, frequently is an area from a few square blocks to a few square miles in area. How many and how large the post areas are depends on many factors – population density, traffic congestion, frequency of calls, etc. So, you may see three ambulances on one five mile stretch of road and none on another stretch of equal length.
We don’t use lights and sirens to get around traffic!
This may have a technique back in the days of “Mother, Juggs and Speed” ambulance services, but today, the use of lights and sirens, code 3 in EMS language, is seen as a risk. Ambulances are large, awkwardly shaped, boxes that are heavier than typical vehicles on the road. Therefore, many ambulance services have installed “fail-safe” monitors that track, in addition to other parameters, when and where the ambulance drives with lights and sirens.
Lights and sirens are also very noisy; according to the City University of New York website; the typical ambulance siren is 120 decibels (dB); just a bit shy of a jackhammer (130 dB) and a jet plane taking off (140dB).1 Considering it may take 5 to 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive at a call, it can easily give me a headache.
If you see an ambulance drive through an intersection or around traffic with lights and sirens on, only to turn them off after getting by the traffic issue, it is likely that they were downgraded. In many EMS systems the closest available ambulance is dispatched to a call. If it is deemed an emergency, then the lights and sirens go on. They may not be the closest ambulance, just the closest available ambulance. While the assigned ambulance is en route to the call, one of two things may happen:
An ambulance that is closer to the call location becomes available (is finished with a call);
Or the dispatcher advises the ambulance crew that the call is no longer an emergency (after getting further information).
Either way, the light and sirens immediately go out, but unfortunately, all the public sees is emergency signals and fast driving, and then sirens off and jump to the wrong conclusions. EMTs and paramedics have been fired for using lights and sirens inappropriately – say to get back to station faster to go home – so, most will not do it.
Another reason we may “shut down” our lights and sirens, only to put them on again soon after, is if we are in a traffic bottleneck, such as five cars back at a red light. The lights and sirens are loud and annoying and may encourage drivers in front of us to take chances that we don’t want them to take, like going into the intersection before the light turns green. That increases the risk of someone else getting into an accident and we don’t need that if we are on our way to an emergency already!
We want you to stop until we are past you!
We can’t read your mind and so we have to slow down until we are sure what you are doing. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen cars slow down as our ambulance approaches or even worse, pass us when our lights and sirens are blaring only to try to turn into our lane because they didn’t hear or see us.
A related issue going through intersections a when the ambulance has a red light. Most jurisdictions allow ambulances to go through a red light. However, many require ambulances to “clear each lane”. What that means is that we must stop at each crossing lane until we are sure that the lane is safe to cross. Safe to cross means that the first car in the lane is completely stopped, or there are no cars in that lane. If the ambulance crew sees a car 100 yards down the road in a lane travelling the speed limit, we do not know if they have seen us and are going to stop. So, we must slow down or stop until we can figure out what that driver is going to do.
If you are driving in front of an ambulance, as soon as you see us, get out of the way and stop. Ambulances are big, awkward and notoriously hard to stop. Ambulances can weigh several tons and can take a very long time to stop, much longer than a typical car. You also may have seen ambulances go into oncoming traffic to get around a bottleneck and figured; the ambulance can just go around you if you at least slow down. The problem is, when we go into oncoming traffic the risk of accident increases dramatically. So, we must slow down well below the posted speed limit, slowing our response time significantly.
So help us out, even if you are several car lengths away from the ambulance or the intersection where the ambulance is headed, stop where you are as soon as possible and let us through. The faster we get through the intersection, the faster you will too!