Ambulances & Vehicle Ops, Communications & Dispatch, Operations

Ambulance ‘Noise’ Can Put Other Motorists in Danger

Issue 9 and Volume 37.

My state has a law that says if your emergency warning lights are on during a response, your siren needs to be on as well. Always. Most laws here are pretty sensible. But like so many things that stipulate “always” or “never” in this business, this one’s goofy.

There are times when the last thing you want to do is advertise your arrival or your intentions in advance. That’s true all the time in some neighborhoods. And it’s fundamental on interstates, where you pretty much have to expect other drivers to do silly things.

Just for a moment, Life-Saver, put yourself in the mind of the motorist I’m about to describe.

It’s close to dusk. You’re cruising home from work at 65 miles per hour, nodding to your favorite loud music. Suddenly and without warning, you’re overwhelmed by a pair of siren speakers that somehow got within 20 feet of your rear bumper. (Yep, that’s way too close.) In addition, your rearview mirror reveals a big blue, elliptical Ford sign with a few inches of a shiny grille around it, and its silver details reflecting the rhythmic flashers of—ohmigosh—an ambulance. (How’d that get there?)

What would you do? Seriously, would you have a seizure? Wet yourself? Pull over quickly and switch places with your front-seat passenger? Slam on the brakes? Speed up and pull to the right without so much as a glance for traffic in the adjoining lane? Lower your window and wave for them to pass? Flip them off? Or turn up the music and drown out that awful woop-woop noise?

Even a year of experience should tell you that if those options were actually offered on a driver’s license renewal test as multiple-choice answers, plenty of licensed drivers out there would consider at least a few of them as viable options.

See, I don’t think most drivers are accustomed to making emergency decisions. And when they try, they sometimes make errors in judgment. (At 65 miles per hour even the smallest errors can have big consequences, can’t they?)

I think of emergency warning equipment as a tool. And I think its applications are generally different on city streets than on interstates. On city streets (at lower speeds), a siren keeps pedestrians on the sidewalk and helps an ambulance get people’s attention from behind so you can ask for the right of way. (Remember it’s ask, not demand.) On interstates, you use it instead to mitigate traffic flow once you’ve gotten past other motorists. But either way, you need the flexibility to choose which kinds of warning equipment to use in any given situation. (That might include no warning equipment at all, even during high-priority calls.)

On interstates, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) routinely employs the use of no forward-facing lights and no sirens while they’re en route to interstate calls. The CHP has known for years that most drivers can’t hear a siren at higher speeds until you’re right on top of them. Most drivers also don’t monitor their rearview mirrors, so they tend to not notice those forward-facing lights anyway. Officers concentrate on sneaking through traffic without startling or scaring anybody. They try to use their rear-facing lights to advise drivers in their wake that they’re responding to an incident. That helps them explain their use of the shoulders, lane changes and sometimes speed.

As emergency vehicle operators, it’s incumbent on us to think for other drivers. We should be doing no harm, not only medically but also in regard to our emergency driving. And as you know, we can do a lot of harm by causing just one other driver
to panic.

It’s time to abandon our outdated practice of flooding our cities and interstates with noise every time we respond to an emergency. It’s time for all emergency vehicle operators to consider some sort of stealth-mode option as a matter of routine, especially on busy interstates. I also advocate one other thing, and I realize not everyone will agree with it.

You can usually tell when your warning equipment is confusing people. When that happens, your safest option is to shut it down and advise your communications center that you’re cutting your “code” response due to traffic. That gives dispatchers the option of selecting a more appropriate unit for your call, or at least it tells them you’re going to be delayed. Delay is an acceptable option to hurting innocent people.

Especially our own.