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What to expect when you call an ambulance

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Sometimes it's pretty obvious when you should call an ambulance. Sudden difficulty breathing? Of course. Car crash? Yes. Loss of consciousness? Definitely.

But as an EMT and ambulance driver, I know that people sometimes call us for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to dissuade anyone from asking for help – when in doubt, call 911! -- but it's helpful to know what you will, and won't, get when my crew and I arrive on the scene.

You might not get to the hospital more quickly. Sure, we have lights, air horns and sirens, and we can legally drive a bit faster, but the situations in which we can take over the road are limited, because emergency driving can be incredibly dangerous. If you've ever moved out of the way of an ambulance on the road, you probably saw us responding to a call. We are rushing because we don’t know if those minutes might make a difference. Once we evaluate a patient it's up to our officer in charge to decide whether we are going to speed to the hospital. More often than not we drive without lights and sirens and aren’t any quicker than your loved one following behind us in a car.

You don’t automatically jump to the front of the line if you arrive via ambulance. No one likes sitting in triage reading out-of-date People magazines. We understand that. But the hospital staff prioritizes by need – not by mode of transportation.

We might not be able to take you to the hospital of your choice. We try to be accommodating, but there are many factors that go into our decision. Sometimes a hospital will be so crowded that ambulances are told to go elsewhere. Other times we may be limited to the nearest hospital because a storm results in a higher number of calls or makes it dangerous for us to be out.

We are well-trained, but we aren’t doctors, and ambulances are not hospitals on wheels. There is a lot we can do, but more often than not our medicine of choice is diesel – get you in the ambulance and drive you to the hospital. I can’t x-ray your throat. I can’t tell you if that hairy mole on your back is cancerous. I can’t tell you if that pain you have been feeling in your stomach for three days will go away on its own. We are trained to provide emergency medical care -- with emphasis on emergency.

What you can do to help us:

Put BIG numbers on your house and make sure they are well lit at night.

Know where you are. Sure, it's easy when you have an emergency at home or work, but what would you say if you were at a friend’s house or driving around? Just knowing major intersections near you makes a big difference in finding you.

Write or type the names of your medications, the conditions for which you take them and the dosages. Put this information someplace easy to find, such as on the fridge or in your wallet. Writing down a list of allergies helps, too.

Hide a key outside. If you have a medical emergency – like a bad fall down the steps -- and can’t open the door for us, we will have to knock it down. If you have a key hidden, you can tell the dispatcher, and we'll know where to look.

If you have an emergency medical alarm (a good idea), make sure you know how to turn it off in case you accidentally engage it.

Amy Orndorff is a volunteer EMT in Montgomery County, Md. and listings editor for The Washington Post's Weekend section.