Are You an Ambulance Driver Too?

One of the fastest ways to piss off almost anyone in the emergency medical services community is to call them an “ambulance driver.” It has become a triggered response as reliable as setting off the tones for a call. We bristle at the fact that driving an ambulance is such a small part of what we are trained to do – even though “high-flow diesel” can be an effective, legitimate treatment for certain patients. Retired FD captain and bestselling author of Rescuing Providence, Michael Morse, wrote an article last year on accepting the title of “ambulance driver.” His reasoning was due in large part to the variety of nuanced titles that we stubbornly cling to including Paramedic (which is reserved only for “those who can intubate”), EMT, Basic, EMT-I, or AEMT as well as several permutations of NREMT. Quite frankly, we simply do not accept any generalized term for “EMS workers” that is as easy to understand and say as doctor, nurse, firefighter, or cop. And for those who are offended at being lumped into the cadre of “first responders,” at least the term “ambulance driver” does distinguish one of our unique capabilities.

“Ambulance Driver”

While I agree that Morse has a legitimate argument in his assertion that we have made this predicament ourselves, there is another salient point that comes to my mind from the news multiple times each month when an ambulance is involved in a serious wreck. A local Minnesota news channel investigation discovered that the requirements for operating an ambulance in emergency traffic while carrying a sick patient and an often unrestrained paramedic in a moving emergency room is far less than is mandated for a “truck driver hauling a semitrailer load of beer.”

With a shortage of paramedics, more EMTs are being hired to fill out crews. With low starting wages, it is often people who are still too young to legally rent a car by themselves that are put behind the wheel of a 14,000 pound vehicle costing nearly a quarter of a million dollars and loaded with the most vulnerable of human cargo after just a day or two of experience driving a cone course!  

Recently, NHTSA analyzed 20 years of data and found that the nation averages 29 fatal crashes involving an ambulance each year. Furthermore, these accidents result in an average of 33 fatalities annually. For a group of individuals dedicated to saving lives, this should be an unacceptable statistic. Rather than being indignant that the name describes so little of our training, we need to adequately train for the job of driving an ambulance for proficiency just as we train for our skills as a medical clinician. The lives of our patients (and our partners) depend on that skill every bit as much, if not more, than our medical skills.

In addition to my personal credentials as a professional (both in EMS and GIS), I am a fire vollie, a backpacker, an instructor, and an amateur historian. While none of these monikers describe the entirety of my personality, none of them offend me by limiting the description. Why should I be insulted for being recognized for a critical function in safely operating an emergency vehicle? I do not hear doctors being offended by not being identified by their specialty or even by being lumped in with a PhD outside of the medical community. The sad fact is that we just don’t have an agreed generic term for the collection of people with which we share our profession. Although the term “ambulance driver” does not fully define me as a person, or even as an emergency medical professional, I will proudly accept the title as my personal commitment to safely operate my ambulance for the benefit of the public, my patient, my partner, and myself. To any other “ambulance driver” out there, let me thank you for all you do for the public beyond the safe operation of your rig.  

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