Driving an ambulance is a scary business. It takes training and skill, plus a bit of bravery and fearless concentration. The training is similar to a traffic police officer’s and there is no room for mistakes when you are all that is between hope and death for a patient. That may sound somewhat dramatic but it’s often, unfortunately, true. That adds another element of stress to the driving – consideration for your partner working on the patient in the back. The drive must be urgent, but safe and smooth for everyone on board, and on the road around you. Progressive driving isn’t about speed, it’s about planning and constant awareness. That awareness becomes more sensitive with experience.
I’ve already written about a few incidents and near misses in other posts, here are a couple more:
We had dropped our patient off at A&E in the city and were on out way out of town, heading for our home station. A 999 call came in while we were on the main road across the city, a dual carriageway. I was driving, I checked around me and turned on our systems. Sirens howling, I moved to the outside lane. It was lunchtime and, as we approached traffic lights, I could see a long tailback across both lanes. Since there was no central reservation on this stretch of road, it was common practice to move over to the outside lane of the opposite carriageway. The speed limit was 40 and it was obvious to oncoming traffic that you were coming from a fair distance away. The roads were damp but the rain had stopped, visibility was good. I proceeded with caution down the outside of both lanes on my side, constantly changing the tone of my siren. The oncoming traffic I was facing was moving to their inside lane in plenty of time.
To this day, I have not managed to work out what insane brain process caused what happened next.
As I drove past the two lanes of traffic on my inside, someone who was stopped in a large car in the outside lane on my side decided to be impatient. They seemed to think that the traffic had stopped for no reason and that they could pull out into the oncoming traffic and overtake it, as we were doing. But they weren’t on their way to an emergency, nor were they an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens. Nor had they seen us. As they pulled out into oncoming traffic, it must have dawned on them slightly what was happening. When they saw me in their mirror, around 3 car lengths behind them rapidly approaching, lights and sirens in full swing, I think their folly may have become apparent to them. Despite my cursing, I was blessing the person who invented ABS braking systems as I stopped behind them with inches to spare. That was one of many “butt clenchers” throughout my career. Eventually, they moved back into their lane and we continued. There was no time, and no point stopping for a rant. I’m not sure who got the biggest scare, but I’d like to think they might have learned a lesson in patience that day.
Our ambulances were put through a lot during their active lives, and they were well looked after and maintained by some expert mechanics. This, however, did not prevent occasional failures. These often happened at the most inconvenient of times.
Before the reintroduction of tail lifts in ambulances, they had an automated ramp that folded out and the rear suspension could be lowered. This lowering was done by deflating airbags that the rear of the vehicle sat on. Once the ramp was raised , the airbags were inflated and the rear of the ambulance was raised again. This system worked well…mostly.
In winter especially, these airbags would sometimes burst.
Winter, night shift – we had received an emergency call to an elderly patient. On arrival, the duty out of hours doctor was on scene. We knew the doctor well and we suggested that, because of the patient’s condition, they travelled with us to hospital. They agreed and we left, en route for A&E in the city.
We managed around 3 miles before the loud bang! From there, the rear of the Ambulance was actually resting directly on the rear axle. We bounced along the road, very slowly, for a few yards, before I was able to park the vehicle in a small roadside supermarket car park. We radioed control and explained the situation, requesting an urgent back up vehicle from the city. Fifteen mins later, we saw the blue lights approaching us. The patient, doctor and my partner were all transferred to the new ambulance and disappeared off into the distance. I was left, alone, in the car park, waiting for the recovery truck. What felt like an eternity turned out to be around 2 hours. I finally caught up with my partner at A&E, drinking coffee and chatting to the nurses.
It looks glamourous on TV sometimes, but driving an ambulance is far from it. My initial driving instructor once told us “If you ever lose the buzz of driving to an emergency job, it’s time to retire.”.
They also said “If you want glamour, become an airline pilot. If you want to be a hero, join the army.”.