Emergency Driving (Blue lights and sirens)

Here are a few thoughts on driving an ambulance under emergency conditions (using the blue lights and sirens) and a few myths dispelled.

  • Nobody round here ever says ‘blues and twos’, most of us cringe when we hear that. It’s more than 20 years since we had the two tone horns (nee naw) which this is slang for, now we have the familiar American style siren. If we have to refer to this type of driving it’s: ‘emergency driving’, ‘using the lights’ or ‘hot response’.
  • We have several exemptions from the road traffic act (1988); we can only claim them when on an emergency and ‘visible and audible warnings must be deployed’ (blue lights and sirens must be on). When claiming an exemption, the emphasis is that it can only be done ‘when safe to do so’.
  • Whenever the blue lights are on, the siren should also be on. Most drivers use a little discretion and don’t use the sirens at, say, three o’clock in the morning in a residential area.  If we do have a crash and the sirens are not on then in the following investigation we can be subject to a disciplinary.
  • All ambulances and response cars have a ‘black box’ and video recording cameras. Data can be downloaded from these after an incident.  As well as the obvious video feed from the cameras, the ‘black box’ displays speed, acceleration, braking and which lights/indicators are on including the blue lights and sirens.  Data can also be reviewed from the GPS trackers showing the exact route taken.  Big brother well and truly watches us.  This protects the public by ensuring our standards of driving are kept high and protects us drivers too from some of the wilder claims made by members of the public if involved in an incident with an emergency vehicle.  Rumour has it there is also a recorded audio feed from the cab but this has to be mainly bleeped out to spare the blushes of the investigators.
  • The most obvious exemption we claim is: Red traffic lights junctions can be treated as a stop and give way junction. We don’t have right of way through a red traffic light but if other drivers stop for us we can pass through.  When a queue of traffic is waiting at a red light and there is no space for us to pass then we never expect drivers to put themselves at risk by entering the junction against the red light.  We will sit back from the junction with the siren turned off and wait until it is safe.  PLEASE NEVER ENTER A JUNCTION AGAINST A RED LIGHT AND RISK A CRASH.  If you can safely move to the side to make space for us to pass then that’s great.  If you did cross the stop line to make room for us and it triggered a junction camera, you would be prosecuted for breaking the road traffic act, even with the best of intentions.
  • Another exemption we claim is related to speed limits. At our level of training we can travel at up to 20mph above the speed limit, WHEN SAFE TO DO SO.  Other types of emergency drivers (police) have more flexibility with regards to speed, but again, only when safe to do so.  If we trigger a speed camera, an ‘intention to prosecute notice’ is sent to ambulance headquarters which has to be investigated and a reply sent justifying the exemption.  This involves checking the ambulance is responding to an emergency at the time, audible and visible warnings (lights and sirens) were being displayed at the time.  This must be a full time job for some poor person in HQ!  If the speeding is not justified then the driver’s details are passed on and the driver is personally liable and gets the prosecution.  So when you see us jumping the rush hour queues, we really will be responding to an emergency and not trying to get back to base before our chips get cold.
  • When I’m driving on an emergency and speeding or going through a red light and I see a police car my immediate reaction is still to feel guilty!
  • When we park at an emergency, we always try to park considerately and make sure the road is passable. The response cars are obviously smaller and can be squeezed into a space but the ambulances have to be near the property so when we come to load the patient we are not outside for too long.  This means sometimes we will block the road.  Our priority is dealing with and treating the patient and we will always be as quick as possible.  Sitting bibbing a car horn will not make us move any quicker and knocking on the patient’s door to tell us to ‘shift it!’ will also not speed us up.  Luckily most of the public are very understanding and patient with us.
  • Any member of staff who says they don’t get a bit of a buzz out of driving with the lights and sirens is lying to try and be cool and complacent I think. Even after all these years, at the start of the shift I get a buzz out of emergency driving though admittedly at the end of the shift I get more of a headache than a buzz.

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