Situation Critical Behind The Wheel Of An Ambulance

After a day at the Toronto EMS training grounds, Wheels writer confirms the driver’s seat of an ambulance is no place for a newbie

Nika Rolczewski
Special to the Star

Be thankful that when you dial 911 in an emergency, I don’t arrive.

My medical knowledge consists of putting a bandage on a paper cut and, I recently discovered, I couldn’t drive an ambulance if my life – or yours – depends on it.

Paramedic Michael Zelea, on the other hand, is quite capable of coming to your rescue. His almost 30 years on the job have prepared him for anything, including time with me behind the wheel of his ambulance.

The Crestline New Era is outfitted with upgraded braking and suspension packages for its demanding role as an emergency response vehicle. But it is still a truck, and drives like one, Zelea warns.

The difference between driving an emergency vehicle and a passenger vehicle is technique.

“Our patient’s safety and comfort is the priority,” Zelea says.

With pedestrians and cars as moving roadblocks, he is always challenged. Other distractions – the blaring siren, dispatch radio updates and even the mental preparation for what the patient will require – all make multitasking the norm for Zelea and other paramedics.

To become a paramedic, you must complete a two-year college program that focuses on the medical training needed to assess and start treatment on a patient.

Driver training is a small part of the course but an essential skill set.

“You can’t get to that 911 call if you are in a collision,” Zelea explains, adding that an ambulance is not a medical limousine but a travelling triage centre.

Hence the additional training beyond the Ministry of Transportation’s F licence, which grants authority to drive an ambulance or a small bus (up to 24 passengers).

So, on a chilly, grey day, I set out to see how difficult it is to finesse an ambulance through its paces at the Toronto EMS skid pad and training grounds, located on an abandoned airstrip.

My adventure begins in an EMS Chevrolet Tahoe. I’m confident. Some would say smug. And why not? This support vehicle – not used for patient transport – is similar to my everyday SUV.

And pylons do not scare me. My resume includes years of high-performance driver training and a completed California stunt-driving course. Bring it on.

Soon, my confidence is shaken. I watch as Zelea pries free a plastic cone wedged under my bumper. It was the wind, I tell myself.

I keep forgetting standard operating protocol: put the parking brake on when parked and honk twice when reversing. Worse, my parallel parking is dismal.

I make some gains in the slalom course but lose points when reversing. My use of mirrors needs work.

And I haven’t even gotten to the ambulance yet.

It is much larger, at 384 cm, but the only allowance on the course is five extra centimetres in the parking area. I must turn and manoeuvre around barrels and pylons equally spaced for the Tahoe, but without the visibility.

I overcompensate and back up, leaving too much space in my “judgment stop.” That’s a deduction.

In the simulated construction zone, I weave in and out when needing to back up straight. Parallel parking takes me many tries and costs me more points.

I improve slightly the second time around, after being coached by Zelea. It is important to learn the dimensions of the vehicle, its perception in the mirrors and the turning radius, he explains, as I try to blame the truck for kissing yet another cone.

Each vehicle in the EMS fleet has a daily inspection, is serviced every six weeks and completely overhauled every six months at an in-house facility.

My ABS brake training falls short, as a synchronized pair of pylons goes airborne. I also fail to avoid the makeshift obstruction that could have been a non-yielding vehicle or a pedestrian. Even with today’s ambulances, now four times as reflective as previous models and flashing a multitude of lights, many people still don’t see them coming, Zelea says.

Acceleration and braking must be smooth with a patient on board, as the driver’s partner may be starting an IV, performing CPR or administering life-saving medication. It is common for paramedics to spend more than half of a 12-hour shift behind the wheel.

Experience is the best teacher and my experience is over. I am humbled.

My six-page EMS Driver Training Tracking Sheet has a handful of Xs scribbled on it. If I was a paramedic, I would need a minimum of 70 per cent to pass.

I never want to be in the back of an ambulance and, after this training exercise, I definitely don’t want to be behind the wheel again.



Nika has had a love for cars and racing since childhood. A regional racing license holder she has been involved with the industry, working with racers, teams, journalists and automobile manufacturers in sponsorship solicitation, logistics, hospitality, road show and communication program implementation.