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How Ambulances Work

The Types of Ambulances

training rescue, South Africa
Firefighters and paramedics perform a training rescue at Lakeside Fire Department during the city's fire and rescue service open day in Cape Town, South Africa. Brazzo/Getty Images

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At the first responder level, police officers and firefighter crews sometimes provide basic medical care. But they normally don't transport patients, explains Scott Buchle, program manager for Penn State Health Life Lion EMS in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That's the job of ambulances, which also have the ability to respond to more complicated situations.

According to Buchle, there are two basic types of ground ambulances, differentiated by the level of care they are capable of providing.

The basic life support (BLS) ambulance typically has two EMTs who can assess patients, identify their health problems and provide them with basic care, including oxygen for patients who are having difficulty breathing. BLS crews also are trained on how to extricate car crash victims from the wreckage of their vehicles. They're also equipped with automated defibrillator devices that they can use to shock the heart of a patient who goes into cardiac arrest. They also carry NARCAN, an opioid antidote that's used to treat overdoses.

The next level of service is provided by advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, which are staffed by paramedics and nurses, who have advanced training, as well as EMTs. An ALS team can respond to more complicated health situations, and is able to provide a higher level of care, such as administering medications and initiating intravenous (IV) therapy to deliver the drugs directly into a patient's veins.

In addition to full ambulances, EMS services also may use chase cars — basically, passenger vehicles that will transport an additional paramedic and his or her equipment to the scene of a medical emergency, until an ambulance can get there. At that point, the paramedic will jump on the ambulance and accompany the patient back to the hospital.

The type of vehicle sent to a call depends upon the nature of the emergency. A BLS ambulance might handle a patient with a broken leg, but if that person is in cardiac arrest, a dispatcher may send an ALS vehicle instead, according to Buchle.

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