Not long ago, I attended a holiday celebration at my brother’s home in California. He’s a paramedic/firefighter, so as could be expected, many in attendance were either one, the other, or both. While we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon in the backyard, we started talking about Emergency Vehicle Operator Course (EVOC) training, or the lack thereof, that some of those in attendance had received when they were hired. One told me that the first time she learned how to turn the sirens on was the first time she had to turn them on in response to a call.
She continued to say that her EVOC training occurred while she was actually responding to a call with her partner instructing her to speed up, slow down, and telling her that by the way, touching the horn button changes the siren pitch. Talk about a potential liability nightmare, not to mention the guaranteed apprehension and fear the new EMS driver experienced when she was essentially thrown to the wolves by her agency.
Unfortunately, this story isn’t an exception, but more of the stark reality of many agencies’ “on the job” driver training regimen. So, if you happen to be in the same boat—or ambulance—you owe it to yourself, your partner, your patient, your family and the public to be proactive in improving your driving skills. Although running a code-3 isn’t something you can really practice on city streets, you can do some basic exercises that will improve your situational awareness and driver skills.
This Button Does What?
Let’s face it. The first time you hop into an EMS rig, you’ll see a lot of buttons and switches. All of them perform a critical function in a given situation, so the time to learn what they do is not on the way to your first real call. Take some time to learn what each button or switch does beforehand—this includes the factory-installed equipment. Spend an afternoon, an evening, whatever learning all stages of emergency light activation, siren options and even external lighting options.
Do you know how many rescue rigs I see running down the road with their external floodlights activated for no apparent reason? Chances are, a button was ignored, overlooked or just plain forgotten. Situational awareness applies to every aspect of your job; this includes knowing how to turn on the windshield wipers as much as it does knowing how to turn on the LED light bar.
The Benefits of Commentary Driving
I’m a huge advocate of commentary driving for several reasons. When I was a field training officer, I often used it to gauge the visual picture my trainees had of the world around them. Simply put, commentary driving uses verbal and auditory feedback to assess situational awareness. It’s free and easy, and all it takes is the driver opening their mouth and telling their partner what they see as they drive.
As the driver, commentary driving forces you to find things to talk about, and it forces you to scan, identify and verbalize your visual picture. As the partner/passenger, commentary driving helps you make sure the driver sees all they should in terms of potential hazards. For example, if the passenger sees a red truck approaching from a side street at a decent rate of speed, and the driver doesn’t verbalize that they see it, the passenger can say, “I see a red truck on the side street, do you?” If the driver does, great. If not, this may help them realize they should scan earlier, wider and more often.
You can’t react to what you don’t see, and because running a Code-3 means many more potential hazards may arise, practicing commentary driving will automatically make you more aware of your driving environment.
Learn from Children
Kids love games, especially video games. Nobody advocates turning a child into a couch potato, but some video games, especially action ones, have some benefits. They stimulate one’s kinesthetic, visual and auditory senses, quicken reaction times and help develop cognitive skills.
This carries over into driving, where a driver’s brain is hit with new information approximately every two feet. This means that, in a given mile, a driver’s brain has to assess more than 2,500 pieces of new information, decipher what matters, keep the good stuff and chuck the rest. This is just for one mile, and the sirens haven’t even been turned on yet. Because driving is a mental process assisted by physical moves, it’s important to improve your cognitive processing skills. Doing so will help you deal with stressful situations like Code-3 runs where a lot is going on that could potentially get you or someone else hurt or killed if you make the wrong choice.
So, consider some time with the X-Box or PS3, or try many of the cognitive brain games that can be found online or downloaded on your phone. I have a few on my Droid X that I play regularly, and the exercises have been scientifically proven to improve processing, spatial awareness and other critical mental skills.
The first time to learn the skills necessary to operate an EMS rig under Code-3 conditions isn’t when you’re running a Code-3 for real. Unfortunately, though, that’s how some agencies train new hires. As an EMS professional, your life and the lives of those around you demands much more. Even if you have had some proper EVOC training, the above mentioned tips can help you refine your skills. Either way, do something, because, after all, the first goal of going to work every day is to make sure you go home every night.