Editorial comment – Sirens and all

Ministry of Health permanent secretary, Dr. James Fong. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

The comments by the Health Ministry permanent secretary Dr James Fong, about ambulances and sirens, is quite interesting.

He put ambulance drivers on notice, suggesting they would need to get special approval from authorities before turning on sirens and driving over the speed limit.

If they were transferring a patient, they were now urged to travel slowly, following the rules like other drivers, unless it was an emergency.

If there was a need to travel fast, then ambulance drivers would have to inform those in authority.

“We are working very hard on making sure that every single ambulance driver, in order to turn the siren on, they have to get special authority to do it.”

He said ambulance drivers were only allowed to break the speed limit in genuine emergencies.

Interestingly, the New York Times ran an article touching on this very issue late last year.

It suggested, and referred to the view of experts, that for all the noise they create and attention they draw, sirens, combined with emergency lights and speeding, could be a force multiplier for more harm than good.

The article suggested that emergency drivers were more likely to engage in risky behaviour when they used lights and sirens.

There was also the bit about drivers responding sometimes in unpredictable ways, such as stopping right in front of an emergency vehicle instead of pulling out of the way.

It even suggested the use of lights and sirens had been shown to have little bearing on patient outcomes, and pointed to studies that estimated that lights and sirens responses shaved 42 seconds to three minutes off the time of a trip to the scene of a call.

When emergency medical responses were evaluated in Salt Lake City in the 1990s for instance, it noted, the difference between “hot” calls (lights and sirens on) and “cold” ones (no lights or sirens) amounted to an average of 26 seconds.

The article noted the impact of sirens on responders in terms of hearing loss and stress on patients, and also noted the risk of accidents, and posed the question of whether it was a public health dilemma!

Then there was the issue of improved insulation and sound systems of modern cars and whether drivers, with closed windows, and the radio switched on for instance, could hear the siren on a speeding ambulance in time to make a move.

This decision by Dr Fong will no doubt put pressure on ambulance drivers to be a bit more receptive when out on our roads.

Understandably we would also have to factor in our massive traffic jams every morning and afternoon in our urban centres.

In saying that, we hope this will be something that is considered by the police force as well.

Otherwise we wouldn’t want to be developing the ‘Cry wolf’ mentality.

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