Rethinking the Utilization of Lights and Sirens Response to Every Call


EMTs are 4.8 times more likely to die in emergency vehicle accidents than the average person driving his or her own car. 

What happens in a world when those sent to save lives actually put their own lives and patient lives at risk? No one is arguing that you should not try to transport a critically ill or injured person to a hospital as quickly as possible. 

But the newest information on protocols of emergency response teams is showing that lights and sirens don't always provide protection from other vehicles as previously thought. 

Do lights and sirens save lives? Do you really need to drive "hot" to transport every patient to the hospital? 

Keep reading to see the conversation surrounding the need for lights and sirens. 

Why Question the Lights and Sirens?

Ambulance inventors/developers included lights and sirens for a reason. They warned people of an emergency vehicle that needed to get to a victim or to a hospital. People would hear the sirens and see the lights from a distance, and they'd pull to the side and give them space. 

This allowed the ambulance to travel at increased speeds, thereby getting a patient in the hands of skilled physicians with more equipment than the ambulance. 

This is certainly what we think of when we imagine lights and sirens going. 

Our world today is not the same quiet world in which the lights and sirens began. 

When Do People Hear Sirens? 

Studies are showing that when people are traveling in their vehicles, they hear sirens when they areless than 80 feet away from the source of the siren. If that person takes 200 feet to stop, then they may have overshot and could possibly crash into the oncoming ambulance or firetruck or they might not be able to get out of the way. 

It is now safer for emergency vehicles to make complete stops at each intersection. 

The real question is, why don't people hear these sirens? 

Some theorize we have more ambient noise in our vehicles. Take in the sound of the tires on the pavement, the sound of the HVAC system, the sound of people talking in the car, or the sound of a radio blaring loudly. These sounds together can drowned out a siren you would normally hear with less contributing noise factors. 

Plus, people are driving more distracted than ever. They have more to look at with technology in cars and more to think about. They do not see the ambulance lights immediately or hear the sirens, especially if they have popped in ear buds and are listening to a podcast. 

One might argue then, why not make the siren louder? A siren that is any louder may compromise the hearing and safety of the EMTs and firefighters closest to the noise. 

Is the Ambulance Ride an Emergency? 

Old school methods of transport used the protocol; EMTs should always run the lights and sirens with a cardiac patient. After all, you're dealing with a patient's heart, so you should keep those lights flashing, right? You should get to the hospital as soon as possible. 

Studies show using lights and sirens reduces EMS response time to an emergency between 1.7 and 3.6 minutes. It reduces transport time up to 3.8 minutes. This means lights and sirens get EMTs to the patient almost four minutes sooner and also gets the patient to an emergency department nearly four minutes sooner. 

You might wonder then, why not use lights and sirens? If it gives you precious minutes to save a patient, why not use them? 

In the case of cardiac patients, the new protocol is showing that if you do not successfully resuscitate a patient prior to arriving at the hospital, the patient will most likely stay dead. That 3.8 minutes you could save, in optimal conditions, might not even matter. Plus, when you drive fast in a world filled with distracted drivers, you may lose your own life. 

If you are running code, you need to use your gut instincts and look around you. How much time will lights and sirens save you, and will that time matter to the patient? 

How Much Driving Experience Do EMTs Have? 

EMTs put in 120 to 150 hours of training for the medical portion of their jobs. They sit through classes and then do over a hundred hours of on-the-job training and practice. When they receive certification, they are ready to help people in the field. 

However, they are not necessarily ready to drive an ambulance. 

Drive training varies from program to program and state to state. Some programs require as little as 8 hours and others require up to 24 hours. This means you need to be an EMT to drive an ambulance. It is not required that you be a good driver, much less a good driver who is driving fast. 

A driver with inadequate training or skill behind the wheel can cause more harm than good while driving with lights and sirens. 

What Is the Best Practice? 

For your particular group of EMTs and paramedics, start by collecting data. 

Come up with a data tracking system where you track each of the times you transport with lights and sirens. Document any life-saving treatments emergency physicians and nurses perform within the first ten minutes of your arrival at the emergency department. 

Track this data for at least a month and at most a year. 

Then ask yourself: Did the lights and sirens matter? Did the lights and sirens make a difference in more than one percent of the transports in which we used them? 

If not, then you need to weigh the cost of putting the public at risk by running your ambulance hot, with lights flashing and sirens blaring. 

Situational Awareness Matters

Think about the use of lights and sirens carefully. Your EMTs will benefit from situational awareness, learning about the best situations for when to use lights and sirens. 

Not every case is an emergency that needs an ambulance to run hot. 

If you are looking for the best courses to help prepare for your EMT certification or recertification, check out our EMT course catalog. If you have any questions about AEMT certification courses or training, visit our website or give us a call. We'd love to help. 

Always refer to the policies/protocols of your local agency if you have any questions.