The use of lights and sirens is supposed to clear traffic by warning drivers or pedestrians that a public safety vehicle is approaching in emergency mode. The expectation is that the use of warning devices increases the safety of both the patient and provider by reducing travel time in responding to a scene or while transporting a patient to the hospital. Conceptually, this visual and audible cue is requesting that other nearby motorists yield the right-of-way to the approaching ambulance.
While lights and sirens are a fundamental cannon of every agency’s standard operating guidelines, their efficacy has never been proven to positively impact patient outcomes. To the contrary, there are examples nearly every day of the failures of these warning systems to provide a safe transport. Just last night there was an accident as an ambulance broke an intersection in Orlando and a few days earlier another crash was reported in Chicago. And literally as I was writing this post, an ambulance from a small town in New York was also hit at an intersection. If warning devices worked, why do we see so many accidents?
In our current age of evidence-based clinical practice, it is more than fair to question operational procedures as well. Studies have shown full use of lights and sirens decrease hospital transport time by only 18 to 24 seconds per mile when the ambulance trip is less than five miles – and there is virtually no time savings at all when the transport is over five miles. Additionally, studies show that the operation of ambulances with warning lights and siren is associated with an increased rate of collisions.
According to a 2010 report on EMS Highway Safety by the National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials, “no evidence-based model exists for what ‘mode’ of operation (lights and sirens) should be used by ambulances and other EMS vehicles when dispatched and responding to a scene or when transporting patients to a helicopter landing zone or hospital. A New Jersey based EMS provider, MONOC, has produced a video that aims to protect EMS providers through creating a culture of safety and limiting the times that warning devices should be used. We do know accidents happen when lights and sirens are used. We also know they save very little, if any, time in transport. But no one wants to completely eliminate them. They are in about the same position as the long spine board. We shouldn’t use them as much as we do, but they seem to still have a proper limited space of operation.
In attempting to limit their use, we can come up with some crazy ideas. A new protocol affecting 15 West Michigan counties calls for the use of emergency lights and sirens only to “circumvent traffic,” primarily at intersections, by ambulances transporting patients with life-threatening conditions. Once traffic has been circumvented, lights and sirens are to be turned off. This seems potentially dangerous as drivers have less warning of an approaching ambulance leaving less time to react. In my experience, drivers are already confused on exactly what they should do when they finally realize we are in a hurry behind them. My other personal concern would be the impression left with drivers when the lights and siren are switched off after “circumventing the traffic.” Will the public incorrectly view the situation as an abuse of the “privilege” to run emergency traffic just to clear traffic? In researching some of these questions, I ran across a serious question from the public asking “if the guy dies do you turn off the siren?” We have failed as an industry to teach the community what we do and how we do it.
The article, “Why running lights and sirens is dangerous” discusses not only the issues faced, but proposes steps that should be taken to reduce the risks associated with driving ambulances “hot.” One objective for safer operation is to reduce the miles that ambulances travel under lights and sirens. The Michigan protocol attempts to accomplish this objective by requiring them to be switched on and off throughout the trip, but another alternative is to change the starting point of an ambulance prior to responding to a call. Many services already accomplish this through dynamic deployment to hot spots of forecast demand which has shown to be effective in reducing both the distance traveled in emergency mode and reduces the overall response time as well.
Carefully consider, within your protocols, when to use the warning devices available to you. Never assume that they “grant you” any right-of-way, as they can only request motorists yield it to you. It is always your obligation when operating an ambulance to drive cautiously for your own safety as well as the public. You can change the culture of ambulance operations to prevent accidents and be safe!