The other day I had to pull off to the side of the road to yield right-of-way to an ambulance. It was stressful as I didn’t see or hear the ambulance until I pulled out in front of it. A friend’s mother accidentally turned out in front of an ambulance and was subsequently pulled over by the police for the infraction. Often, you’re in traffic and cannot get out of the way while an ambulance is behind you blasting its horn as you try to move.
[S]ome people imagine that driving an ambulance at high speed with lights flashing and sirens wailing — racing through messily parted traffic to the scene of a crisis — is the best part of being an emergency medic.
[T]hat couldn’t be further from the truth. “If you’ve been in the industry for any length, you know innately: When you’re in the front of an ambulance and the lights are on, that’s the most dangerous situation for you,” said Studnek, deputy director of Mecklenburg EMS Agency, which serves the Charlotte, N.C., region. “It’s not fun. It’s risky.”
I’ve often seen an ambulance, siren blaring, slow to a crawl while gingerly crossing an intersection while all the cars are stopped. It slows to a crawl because it’s dangerous to fly through an intersection at 30 miles an hour when there is potentially a driver who doesn’t realize cars around them are stopped for a reason.
It’s probably common to assume a badly injured traffic accident victim is on a stretcher inside the ambulance. Or perhaps it’s someone’s grandfather who suffered a heart attack and has only minutes to make it to the hospital. However, the obvious question is: how necessary are flashing red lights and blaring sirens? Do ambulance runs always involve emergency patients where minutes make a difference between life and death?
Up until recently, Mecklenburg EMS was running “running hot” — with emergency lights on and sirens blaring — on three-quarters of runs, racing to get to the scene in under 11 minutes. But when the agency studied its internal data, it found only 5% of calls actually needed a high-priority trip to the hospital. “Not every patient that calls 911 has a life-threatening illness or injury,” Studnek said. “They need a quick dispatch, but they don’t need a red lights and sirens response. That’s the nuance.”
Only 1 in 14 of calls involve these kinds of potentially lifesaving interventions, according to a 2018 nationwide analysis of almost 6 million 911 records.
How much time do flashing lights and sirens actually save?
Other studies suggest that truly time-dependent medical emergencies make up between 4.5% and 5.3% of all call volume. Even in those cases, the time saved by lights and sirens is slim — somewhere between 42 seconds and 3.8 minutes.
Theoretically, lights and sirens save lives by parting seas of traffic to rush patients to hospitals as fast as possible. But research into them echoes Mecklenburg’s takeaways: About 5% of EMS patients benefit, clinically, from quicker transports. Meanwhile, lights and sirens have been found to only save seconds or minutes at most — and almost triple the chance of crashing with a patient onboard.
And yet, more than three-quarters of 911 transports to U.S. medical facilities run hot.
Industry officials are increasingly questioning whether flashing lights and blaring sirens should be the norm or should they be reserved for when there is truly a medical emergency when minutes count.
Despite their lifesaving symbolism, lights and sirens can actively cause harm.
A national 2019 study of about 20 million ambulance dispatches found crash rates more than doubled when lights and sirens were blazing during a run to the hospital.
One quote above says double the risk, while another (also above) reports flashing lights triple the risk of accidents. I wonder how often someone must call an ambulance to pick up ambulance drivers and patients from an ambulance crash. There could potentially be a need for multiple ambulances, which would in turn increase the risk of traffic accidents exponentially. It’s a problem with a self-defeating solution!
Moreover, emergency medical technicians say it’s difficult to stabilize patients while weaving in and out of traffic. More emergency medical agencies are weighing their options about when to use flashing lights with sirens and when to go with the traffic. Perhaps in the future there will be fewer drivers who about have a heart attack when they spot an ambulance on the road behind them.
Read more at: STAT medical news.