What to Know About Ambulances

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 14, 2022
5 min read

Your heart is racing and you’re breaking out into a cold sweat. You feel sick. You’re sure it’s an emergency. You pick up your phone to dial 911. Ambulances are designed for this type of situation — or are they? 

It might surprise you to know that there are specific times when you should call an ambulance to pick you up and transport you to the hospital. Other situations might not require an ambulance ride at all. Learn how to tell the difference in the following guide.

An ambulance is an emergency vehicle equipped with medical devices and machines. It's staffed with emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedic personnel who provide help at the scene of the accident or illness. This vehicle is also designed to transport patients to the hospital and potentially offer lifesaving measures in order to make sure that the patient stays healthy on the way to the hospital. 

Many people don’t realize that an ambulance is not just a vehicle. It’s a tiny, mobile emergency room. While the EMTs or paramedics inside don't have the equipment (or the training) to provide physician-level medical care, they can assist people in emergencies in the following ways:

  • Come to your location after you call 911 for emergency assistance
  • Provide first aid care to keep you stable until you arrive at the hospital
  • Take you to the closest hospital
  • Determine whether you need to be transported by helicopter to another type of medical facility

Knowing when to call an ambulance can be tricky. You should take into consideration your (or the injured or sick person’s) condition, your proximity to the nearest emergency facility, and whether the situation calls for emergency care or not. Ask yourself the following questions as you prepare to dial 911.

Is the situation an emergency? Some emergency situations are obvious. Others are not. If you or the person who needs care is choking, not responding, bleeding a lot, or having what you think might be a heart attack or stroke, it’s a good idea to call 911 and request an ambulance.

If you aren’t sure whether someone is having an anxiety attack or a heart attack, don’t wait to see what happens. Call for an ambulance or immediately take them to an emergency room yourself if you are closer. Any time you suspect that someone’s life is in danger or that they might lose a limb, and you aren’t sure what to do, call an ambulance.

How far is the nearest hospital? If you live 20 miles away from town, calling an ambulance to pick up your aging father who shows signs of a stroke could be a risky move. The ambulance may not arrive in time — and you’ve probably heard that in the event of a stroke, you need to act quickly.

In this situation, it’s a better idea to call 911 for emergency medical assistance as you help your loved one in the car and drive them to the hospital. The professionals on the other end of the line will help you as you bring the ill or injured person into town, and you'll be able to reach town more quickly than if you were to request an ambulance to make the round trip.

If you’re in doubt, it’s always a good idea to call for emergency help. Remember these guidelines, though, to help you make that decision if you ever need to. Try to avoid calling an ambulance in these situations:

When you’re in labor. In most cases, having a baby is not an emergency situation. Learn more about the signs of early labor that can begin days before you give birth. These signs might include short, irregular contractions in the hours or even days leading up to the active stage of labor. 

It’s not necessary to call for an ambulance during the early stage of labor. Additionally, for most women, it's probably safer to have the baby at home than to be transported during active labor. There are a few exceptions, though. You should call an ambulance if the following emergency situations happen when you are preparing to give birth:

  • You’re losing a lot of blood, you can’t breathe, or there’s an emergency medical situation that affects you or your baby.
  • You can’t get to the hospital safely (for example, there’s no one to drive you).
  • You have a preexisting health condition that makes laboring at home dangerous.
  • Your baby needs immediate medical attention after they’re born.

When the situation isn’t life-threatening. Some situations might look much worse than they are. For example, imagine that you’re chopping up tomatoes for dinner and you slice off the tip of your finger. There’s blood everywhere, and your spouse faints at the sight of the blood-spattered cutting board. Is it an ambulance-worthy situation? 

Probably not. But you should clean the wound, put the amputated part of your finger in a bag, put the bag on ice, and head to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible. On the other hand, if you crushed or severed an entire limb, you should definitely call an ambulance.

Other non-life-threatening situations that might still require emergency room treatment are sustaining a moderate burn, spraining or bruising part of your body, or fainting and quickly regaining consciousness. Drive yourself if you're able, have someone else drive you, or request a taxi or ride-sharing service to transport you instead of incurring a costly ambulance bill.

The professionals who work in an ambulance have two goals. First, they must assess and stabilize you. Second, they need to get you to the closest hospital and transfer you to emergency physicians as soon as possible. 

Some ambulance teams will accommodate your wishes if they can. For example, if your preferred hospital or provider is closer than the one the ambulance came from, they could choose to take you there. Others will simply take you to the closest emergency department.

Ambulance rides may cost thousands of dollars. If you have insurance, your provider might pay for some or all of your ambulance bill. If you're uninsured, you might be stuck with a shocking bill weeks or months after you’ve recovered. You can avoid this fee by only calling an ambulance when it’s absolutely necessary.

Ambulance professionals save lives on a daily basis. When you need one, you'll receive high-quality first-aid care from licensed professionals. If you're prone to falls or seizures, or you have another medical condition that requires frequent emergency room visits, speak with your doctor to determine when you should call an ambulance.