What's an Ambulance Driver?

How is that Different than a Paramedic?

paramedic next to an ambulance
Does working on an ambulance make one an ambulance driver?. Mark Gibson/Getty Images


What's an ambulance driver?

The terms paramedic and emergency medical technician have been around for years, but there's still a tendency by some people to call anyone in an ambulance an ambulance driver (anyone other than the patient, that is). Some emergency medical technicians - especially paramedics - get quite offended at being called ambulance drivers. Nobody ever calls a police officer a police car driver or a firefighter a fire truck driver.

So why call us ambulance drivers?


An ambulance driver is someone who drives an ambulance, of course. There is a bit of history here to explain why we are called drivers, while our counterparts in the emergency services are not.

There are three services that drive around in vehicles with red lights on top: law enforcement, fire service and emergency medical service (EMS). Of those, EMS is the youngest - sort of. Law enforcement has been around since there were laws to enforce. Firefighters (called pumpers or pump guards) appeared in France in the early 1700s. EMS is a bit more complicated.

There have been surgeons treating injuries on the battlefield since the Middle Ages. During the American Civil War, there were medics and surgeons helping injured soldiers. Carts or carriages that were used to carry the injured had been around since ancient times and were referred to as "ambulances" by Napoleon's army.

Surgeons sometimes rode in ambulances, but there was always a need for ambulance drivers.

Both of the other emergency services had specialized equipment and specialized titles for the folks who used that equipment, but it didn't change their primary jobs. For example, firefighters are always firefighters, no matter how they do it.

They might be pump operators or engineers in charge of certain equipment. But at the heart of it all they're still fighting fires. Plus, fire pumps didn't always have horses or motors to drive them, so you wouldn't really call the operators drivers anyway.

In early EMS, the specialized equipment - an ambulance - defined the service, rather than the job.

The modern terms of paramedic or emergency medical technician (EMT) only go back as far as the 1960s. By the time any of the terminology or certifications were being developed ambulances were already well established, even in the civilian world.

Ambulances didn't always have trained folks on board to provide specialized medical care (some had doctors or surgeons, but not all). While they may not have had medical personnel, every ambulance had a driver. If you wore a uniform and drove an ambulance, well, by golly, you were an ambulance driver.

Even though the training of paramedics and EMTs got more intensive and began to provide more in-depth care, we never could quite shake the moniker of ambulance driver.

I am regularly asked - often by folks who really should know better - if I'm still "driving the ambulance."

Here's the thing: Within the description of my job I am certainly an ambulance driver. It's part of the gig. When you call 911 for a medical emergency, someone must drive the ambulance to your location. Indeed, California requires ambulance drivers to have an ambulance driver's certificate. Not all states require ambulance driver licenses, but I suppose since I'm a California paramedic, I must also admit that I'm a certified ambulance driver.

The assumption by many paramedics and EMTs is that being called an ambulance driver demeans the skill and training that we have. Perhaps my paramedic skills take a back seat when I'm referred to as a driver, but I can't deny that aspect of my job. On the other hand, it is helpful to us as a group if folks understand that ambulances need more than drivers in the modern EMS.

When you call 911, a highly trained crew, usually consisting of a paramedic (or two) along with an EMT (or two), will respond with professional, compassionate medical care. Depending on the circumstances, they might even save your life. It's no secret that somebody had to drive to your location and somebody will also need to drive away, but their driving won't (and shouldn't) be the defining characteristic of their service.

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