Lights, Sirens, and Going Fast


Before becoming a paramedic, I shared the mindset of the majority of the public when it came to emergency response.

Thanks to TV and movies, a common misconception is that when you call 9-1-1 an ambulance is going to come racing down the street, lights and sirens blaring, and screech to a halt as the crew immediately jumps out and sprints up to the patient. In most media depicting EMS, this is how paramedics are portrayed, running from here to there, always in a state of elevated urgency. However exciting this portrayal of emergency response may be, it is not a real-world view of how EMS providers respond to calls.

While time and speed are vital components of some emergencies, not all 9-1-1 calls warrant a lights and sirens response. As much as I would like to be a movie paramedic with explosions behind me as I run from a burning building after narrowly saving a baby from a sharknado, day-to-day emergency response requires a cool head and calm demeanor while also keeping the safety of everyone involved in mind – including the EMS providers responding to the emergency.


Lights & Sirens

Responding to calls and transporting patients with the lights and sirens activated is one of the most dangerous aspects of EMS work. The risk of an ambulance crew being involved in a crash with an innocent party increases every time the lights and sirens are turned on. To help keep crews and patients safe, many EMS agencies, like Emergent Health Partners (EHP), have strict protocols on when ambulances should use lights and sirens – such a response is generally reserved for true life-threatening emergencies.

The use of lights and sirens for crews responding to scene is determined by EHP’s Emergency Medical Dispatchers. Our team of highly trained dispatchers uses a proven algorithm called Medical Priority Dispatch System to determine when an ambulance should use its lights and sirens. Our dispatchers – who are also licensed Paramedics and EMTs – are in constant communication with 9-1-1 callers and can upgrade a response by our Paramedics if a patient’s condition changes. Therefore, you will not likely see the ambulance come screaming down the street for non-life threatening emergencies like broken bones.

After treating a patient on scene, paramedics and EMTs determine when to use lights and sirens during a patient transport. Our crews are specially trained to recognize such situations and know when its appropriate to use lights and sirens. For the safety of everyone involved, only time-sensitive illnesses and injuries such as stroke, cardiac emergencies, or trauma patients are transported with lights and sirens.


Speed and Safety

Because it’s important for EMS responders to keep themselves safe and calm while responding to emergencies, you won’t see them running when they arrive to help an injured patient. While paramedics and EMTs work with a sense of urgency and speed, it is crucial for them to remain calm, collected, and fully aware of their surroundings. Jumping out of the ambulance and running up to a scene could cause them to forget important equipment in their truck and also doesn’t allow them to assess their surroundings. Worst of all, running on scene could cause an EMS responder to injure themselves, or their patient, from tripping or improperly moving a patient. EMTs and Paramedics learn early on in their EMS education that it is vital to control their emotions and respond swiftly but safely.


Donut Pit Stop?

Since we’re talking about lights and sirens, do you ever wonder why you sometimes see ambulances turn on their lights and sirens only to drive through a red light, turn the lights and siren off and pull into the closest donut shop? Did they get a message that fresh Krispy Kreme donuts were waiting? While I wish we did have a fresh donut alert, it’s more likely that the ambulance crew was canceled right after they were dispatched on a call. A cancelation can happen because another ambulance closer to the emergency became available or the 9-1-1 caller decided they no longer needed an ambulance. (But if you find out how to get Krispy Kreme notifications let me know, OK?)


Matt Rose has been with Huron Valley Ambulance since 2006. During his time with the organization, he has served in many capacities including EMT, Paramedic, Field Training Officer and Mobile Intensive Care Unit Paramedic. Matt currently serves as the organization’s Community Relations Coordinator and PIO.