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A ride down memory lane with a look at how the ambulance has evolved


Earliest ambulances were simple hammocks with canvas slings that were carried by hand.  These were simple but not very fast. To speed things up, horses and camels replaced the men carrying the hammock.  Soon carts were used to hold the patients.  These rides were very bumpy and not good for sick or injured people.


In Chicago in 1899, the first motorized ambulance was introduced.  Early motorized ambulances were managed and housed at hospitals, and manned by hospital staff.  This slow moving rig moved at a top speed of 16 mph.


Occasionally, doctors would ride out with the ambulance to treat patients in their home.  Other workers on the ambulance were merely “ambulance drivers” with no medical skill.  CPR was added to the ambulance driver’s requirements, followed by first aid skills and eventually ambulance drivers became paramedics.


Paramedics usually resent being called ambulance drivers, which is understandable with the amount of training needed to be a paramedic today. Paramedics for the most part can administer drugs and provide medical procedures the same as a hospital.


Funeral homes frequently operated the town ambulance.  I guess that was a normal progression if things didn’t go well for the patient.  Hearses and Cadillac station wagons transported the sick and injured. These station wagon type ambulances were deemed inadequate in 1965 and vans were specially customized to be used for patient transportation.

1954 Studebaker Commander Conestoga Ambulet Ambulance Rochester, Minnesota

Less than 10 year later, in 1973, the EMS Safety Act was instituted and specific requirements were made for ambulances.  Vans were still converted to legal ambulances but increased requirements for equipment pushed for larger vehicles.  Modular ambulances featured a separate cab and compartment on the back for the patient and equipment.  In the 1980’s it was common to see “high-top” vans being used for ambulances since they had more clearance in the back. 


As it goes with every apparatus in the fire service, we all thought bigger was better.  While engines and aerial ladders kept getting bigger along with carrying more equipment, we followed that with ambulances and added some massive rigs with crew cabs.  Some of these ambulances are so big they need special suspension systems that will raise and lower the back of the ambulance to allow stretchers to be taken in and out.


Some ambulances today are being made from special cargo type vans made by Mercedes and Volkswagen.  These vans are similar to the old high top vans but are much more economical, have better storage, and more headroom. 

2015 Emergency Medical Service ambulance in Cleveland, Ohio

Ambulance equipment has also changed a lot over the years.  The old 30 pound orange box “telemetry radio” that was used to contact the hospital has been replaced by a cell phone.  Drugs carried on ambulances keep changing, and heart monitors that once took a flat type of look at your heart from three spots, now look at your heart 12 different ways.  Those old canvas hammocks were replaced by folding stretchers, and now some of the stretchers have motors to lift them in and out of the ambulance. 


Change isn’t always good, but most of these changes have been great improvements for patients and ambulance drivers, oh wait, I mean paramedics.

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