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We Still Need Ambulance Drivers

The opinions and commentary expressed in “Perspectives” are the sole property of the author and do not necessarily reflect those held by EMS World, its staff members or affiliated organizations.

In the world of paramedics, nurses, mobile integrated healthcare, and Uber, do we need ambulance drivers? It is my opinion that we need them now more than ever.

The Problem

The numbers are in, and they are not optimistic. While the sheer volume of calls for EMS assistance continues to increase, available personnel to run them are not beating our doors down for employment. The limelight of Emergency! has faded with the memories of Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto. 

Workplace accidents primarily occur to professionals who’ve been in the business 10 years or less. This made me think of how career fire services staff their engines with trained and qualified engineers. In EMS we operate sophisticated transport vehicles. They contain complex vacuum systems, oxygen systems, patient restraint and litter systems, and more, in addition to communications and warning devices.

What if we combined our EMTs or AEMTs to work with higher-level providers, instead of having dual-medic trucks? Is it time to rethink the role of the ambulance driver? I think maybe someone should be able to answer, “Yes, I’m an ambulance driver.”

In my EMS infancy I worked on many occasions alongside a county ambulance crew. This particular crew consisted of a paramedic who loved his work and an EMT-IV (comparable to an AEMT these days)—Phil and Ralph, respectively. Ralph was responsible for the ambulance. He took ownership of it, cleaned it, helped maintain it when it didn’t require going to the shop, and was a professional driver. Phil, on the other hand, was the attendant on almost all calls, by choice. He was the expert and attended all patients except the OB calls—Ralph had delivered babies before, and Phil was quite all right with that.

Trained Drivers

I believe it’s time to have EMTs who are not only good at their skills and helping their partners on scenes but have been trained by their agency’s mechanic on how to properly check the fluids, tires, and other nuances of their vehicle and perform minor maintenance tasks like changing light bulbs or tightening hoses or wires. A driver should be attentive to the vehicle and driving like a professional. This driver should be checked off on every type (make/model etc.) of vehicle at an agency before they are allowed to drive it. They can develop a working rapport with the agency’s mechanic to better care for ambulances and assure the longest lives from transport units.

Our drivers need to be well versed on their responsibilities in making sure they, the attendant, their patient, and all passengers are properly restrained before the ambulance even moves, and that when an attendant unbuckles to perform any task, the ambulance slows or even comes to a stop until the attendant can buckle up again.

Such a position of authority may alleviate the stressors of hurrying or the adrenal surge that comes from running with lights flashing and sirens blasting. Do we want people who like to drive fast? I think we want people who are proud of their vehicles and take care of them—drivers who take pride in giving a safe, comfortable ride, as if they were driving a limousine instead of a log truck.

Being an ambulance driver doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. It should be a badge of honor, attained after the proper vehicle and driver training in addition to medical training.

An ambulance driver is one who is proud of his job. An engineer is not a lieutenant or captain, but it does not make them any less important on an apparatus. It requires ownership, training, and knowledge. Ambulance drivers should be knowledgeable about streets, routes, vehicles, equipment, and all medical gear—even if beyond their scope of practice. When they are ready, they can take the next step and level up their medical game and obtain the additional training to be an attendant.

It takes a team, and we can have similar and different jobs at the same time. In-service training can take on a whole new meaning for each role—maximizing the best of both worlds. 

John M. Dabbs is a consultant and investigator for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office. 

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