Secrets of a paramedic
What should you do if there's an ambulance behind you? What does it take to become a paramedic? And which car makes the best response vehicle? Our tame driver reveals all...
It's a familiar sight on UK roads: you're driving and hear the tell-tale siren of an ambulance or paramedic response vehicle behind you.
What should you do? How quickly do you need to get out of the way? And if you go through a red light or mount the kerb while doing so, are you breaking the law?
In this feature, we're talking to an anonymous paramedic who has spent years behind the wheel of various response cars, and she is giving us an inside look at what driving an emergency vehicle is like when lives are really on the line – and how other drivers should react.
Please note that any pictures used are for illustrative purposes only.
PART ONE: THE RULES
What traffic rules are you allowed to break?
We can do things like break the speed limit and cross red lights, but only when we judge it safe to be safe to do so. The rules we cannot break include going the wrong way around a roundabout and the wrong way up a one-way street. That can be frustrating, especially when you can see where you need to be but you have to take a five-minute detour to get to it.
If a motorist is stopped at traffic lights on red, but you appear behind them and in a panic they drive forward and cross them, will they be punished?
Yes. A motorist mustn’t break the law to aid the path of an emergency vehicle and we have to turn off our siren in the situation you described because leaving it on would be regarded as intimidation. We can leave our lights flashing, though. In other situations, we can use the horn, but I only use it when a child is involved.
Note: In fact, the Highway Code makes this clear by saying that "you should look and listen for ambulances, fire engines, police, doctors or other emergency vehicles using flashing blue, red or green lights and sirens or flashing headlights, or traffic officer and incident support vehicles using flashing amber lights. When one approaches, do not panic. Consider the route of such a vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass, while complying with all traffic signs."
What annoys you about other drivers?
Increasingly, some teenage drivers think it’s fun to race us. We call the police, who deal with them. The biggest problem is drivers who simply aren't looking and are totally unaware of our presence. Siren, horn, lights – it doesn't matter what you use, they still don't see you.
And then when you arrive at an incident and park up, someone scrawls ‘don't park here’ on a piece of paper and sticks it on the windscreen!
Note: The incident described is from the West Midlands Ambulance Service. A note was left on an ambulance attending an emergency in Stoke-on-Trent in 2018; the writer of the note, a 26-year-old woman, also verbally abused the paramedics during the incident. She later admitted a public order offence and was fined £120.
PART TWO: THE CARS
What’s your favourite response car?
We’ve just been given brand-new Skoda Octavia 2.0 TDI estates and they’re the best cars I’ve driven. They handle well, they’re smooth and they have bags of space. Ultimately, the best response car is one that feels safe and the Octavia feels exactly that.
Do you have to maintain it?
Not to the extent of servicing it, obviously. We have a dedicated garage for that. But when I take one out, it is my responsibility. I have to check the tyre pressures, dip the oil and check the coolant level. Regardless of their condition, new tyres are fitted every four months.
Do the cars you use break down?
Actually, quite often. Personally, I’ve had two flat tyres and once I filled up with petrol and not diesel. I got seriously ribbed over that. We carry a lot of powerful equipment that can drain the car’s batteries. At an incident, to avoid losing battery power or being unable to start the engine, the car is fitted with a ‘run-lock’ device that allows me to take the ignition key out but leave the engine running.
Describe the inside of your response vehicle, please?
It’s an estate, but the back seats have been taken out to create as much room as possible for all of our equipment. Besides driving I have to deal with three essential systems: the mobile digital terminal (MDT), the sat-nav and the communications system. When rushing to a four-month-old baby who’s stopped breathing it’s all go, and stressful managing everything.
PART THREE: THE JOB
How long have you been a paramedic driver?
Five years – but it feels longer.
How did you become a paramedic?
First, I did a three-year Bachelor of Science degree in medical sciences before registering with the Health and Care Professions Council as a specialist paramedic practitioner.
How did the driving side develop?
I had a driving licence, of course, and then I got a C1 licence allowing me to drive an ambulance. I followed that with blue light emergency training.
Blue light emergency training – what does that involve?
It’s actually very stressful and quite a few people fail because they can't handle it. It’s an intensive, five-day course that includes night-time driving. You’re trained to cross red lights and speed safely – all the things you’d expect. They also test your behaviour in a simulated emergency. It’s about pushing you to the limit and seeing how you react.
How much does a paramedic driver earn?
A medically qualified driver is paid on the Band 7 pay scale, which is about £35,000 including a shift allowance.
What personal qualities does your job require?
You see some very upsetting things, obviously, and especially where children are concerned. You have to learn to process and deal with such experiences, rather than bottle them up and let them eat away at you. We’re only human and we get upset just as much as the next person but we can't let our emotions affect our job.
Are you based at a central location?
Yes, but we also drive to stand-by points at places such as supermarket car parks where we wait to be called. They’re located at regular intervals to provide good coverage.
Do you have a crew?
In an ambulance, yes, but in a response car, you’re on your own. It’s a big responsibility and, especially at night, there are times when I feel quite vulnerable but you have to accept that’s how it is and get on with it.
How much time are you given to get to an incident?
The target is eight minutes, but that’s from call-out which, depending on demand and how the incident has been prioritised, we may actually come sometime after the incident occurred. It’s why, sometimes, we can appear to be late.
The problem is, people don't realise we’ve only just been called out and driven as fast we can to get to them. They might be on drugs. Some may be from another country where they have no equivalent of the NHS and think they have to pay for an emergency call-out, so resent it when we’re late. We’re there to help but people take their frustration out on us. I’ve been spat at and kicked.