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What is an Ambulance?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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An ambulance is a vehicle which has been specifically designed to transport someone who requires medical attention. Many people are familiar with the concept of an emergency ambulance, an ambulance which is used to rapidly move patients to critical care in an emergency room. Ambulances can also be used for routine transport of non-urgent cases, such as transfers between hospitals and nursing homes. In most nations, ambulances are given priority on the road, in recognition to the fact that time is of the essence when moving critically ill or seriously injured patients.

The origins of the ambulance lie in the military, which is perhaps not altogether surprising, since military service tends to carry an increased risk of being seriously injured. Historically, military hospitals and medical care stations have been located as close to the battlefield as possible to provide rapid attention, and corpsmen were employed to transport wounded soldiers quickly to the hospital. In the 1700s, a military doctor came up with the idea of using a horse-drawn cart to move injured soldiers, and the earliest ambulances were born. Like other military inventions, the applications of the ambulance were quickly realized by the civilian community and adapted.

Some of the earliest ambulances doubled as hearses, with funeral homes operating hearse and ambulance services to their communities. Over time, specialized ambulance services began to arise, although a few funeral homes continue the tradition of providing both forms of transport, albeit with different vehicles.

Cars, boats, and aircraft can all be adapted or designed for use as an ambulance. A typical ambulance includes space for one patient and one to two attendants, with room for the attendants to move comfortably. Cupboards and cabinets in the vehicle hold medical supplies which can be used to stabilize the patient on the way to the hospital. Some ambulances offer only Basic Life Support (BLS), while others can be used for Advanced Life Support (ALS) for more serious patients.

Most ambulances have high roofs, so that the attendants can stand, and they have heavy duty engines so that they can be driven quickly, despite carrying a lot of weight. Ambulances are also clearly identified with bright visual markings which are designed to attract attention, and they may use special alert lights and sirens while in operation. When an ambulance turns on its lights, siren, or both, other vehicles must usually yield right of way.

Ambulance services may be operated by hospitals, governments, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit companies which specialize in ambulance transport. Several ambulance services have also adopted rapid response cars, small cars and motorcycles stocked with basic medical supplies which rove cities with paramedics who can respond to a medical emergency quickly, assisting the patient while the ambulance is dispatched and recalling the ambulance if the patient's case is not severe enough to require ambulance transport.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By EliseP — On May 11, 2011

An ambulance is an emergency vehicle with paramedics inside that help provide medical care to the injured or ill immediately while on the way to the hospital to help save lives.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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