Who exactly is a paramedic who drives an ambulance?
Some of our readers have taken great offense to the headline to a story in our Sunday print edition, which read: ‘Ambulance driver badly hurt in crash: 3 others injured in head-on crash’
The story, accompanied by a photo of the badly crumpled front of the ambulance, went on to describe how the ambulance, driven by paramedic William Spadafora, had collided Saturday morning with a pickup truck on state Route 32 in the town of Ulster.
Many of you at this point are likely puzzled. But every member of the emergency services community knows exactly what’s at issue.
In the eyes of paramedics, we committed the sin of referencing one of their own as an ‘ambulance driver,’ instead of as either a ‘paramedic’ or an ‘emergency medical technician.’
We know this because we have heard from a steady stream of paramedics. The response has run the gamut from gentle education to full-scale venting, including the crying of tears.
No offense was intended nor was it implied by a common reading of our headline.
We understand the distinction between ‘ambulance driver’ and ‘paramedic,’ which is why you normally will not see a news story referencing ‘ambulance drivers’ responding to the scene of an emergency. It’s also why Mr. Spadafora was characterized in the story as a paramedic after it was made clear that he had been the driver of the ambulance.
But, journalistically, ‘ambulance driver’ performs much better in the headline in service of readers.
The paramedic injured in this accident was not "an ambulance driver" in the sense of vocation, but he was very definitely was in the sense of "the driver of an ambulance." (You wouldn't say "Paramedic driver," would you?)
That is to say, the description is both accurate and more informative than "Paramedic badly hurt in crash." The use puts the victim behind the wheel of an ambulance and suggests the accident occurred while in performance of a duty. The story, of course, goes on to identify his status as paramedic, presumably eliminating any potential confusion.
Think of it this way. Most traffic accident headlines will read something like this:
-- 'Motorist badly hurt....'
Indicating the driver of a car, usually a personal vehicle.
-- 'Cyclist badly hurt...'
Indicating the driver of a motorcycle.
-- 'Truck driver badly hurt....'
Indicating the driver of a truck.
In none of those instances is the characterization of the driver intended to signify vocation or status, but, rather, the headline indicates the action of the person at the time of the accident. In other words, this style of headline, in each of its variations, puts the injured behind the wheel of the particular vehicle involved.
The motorist or the cyclist or the truck driver could be a brain surgeon or a lifeguard or an editor or a paramedic; that's not the point of the characterization, which is simply to put the injured person behind the wheel of a vehicle at the time of an accident.
In most cases, we would not write "Brain surgeon badly hurt..." or "Lifeguard badly hurt..." or "Editor badly hurt..." when writing about a traffic accident. (We would do so only if the person injured was particularly well-known such as, say, a mayor or governor or famous musician.)
Again, the headline is not about their occupation or status, it's about what they were doing at the time of the accident.
In print, for the purposes of clarity in a limited space, the headline "Ambulance driver badly hurt...' worked perfectly in concert with the photo that we published, immediately telling the potential reader that the person injured was behind the most severely crushed portion of the ambulance.
The story, of course, properly clarified that Mr. Spadafora is a paramedic.
A couple of folks even sent along to us an essay attributed to Rod Brouhard, a paramedic and published author on emergency medical care.
That article delves into the history of the term as used in the days when training was scarce for mobile emergency providers. Interestingly, while the persons who send us the article intended to chastise us, the article itself actually defends the occasional, specific use of the term “ambulance driver.”
According to the article forwarded to us, Brouhard wrote:
Even though the training of paramedics and EMTs got more intensive and began to provide more in-depth care, we never could quite shake the moniker of ambulance driver. I am regularly asked - often by folks who really should know better - if I'm still "driving the ambulance."
Here's the thing: Within the description of my job I am certainly an ambulance driver. It's part of the gig. When you call 911 for a medical emergency, someone must drive the ambulance to your location. Indeed, California requires ambulance drivers to have an ambulance driver's certificate. Not all states require ambulance driver licenses, but I suppose since I'm a California paramedic, I must also admit that I'm a certified ambulance driver.
The assumption by many paramedics and EMTs is that being called an ambulance driver demeans the skill and training that we have. Perhaps my paramedic skills take a back seat when I'm referred to as a driver, but I can't deny that aspect of my job. On the other hand, it is helpful to us as a group if folks understand that ambulances need more than drivers in the modern EMS.
I agree with this perspective, which is why “ambulance driver,” as used in the headline, was a legitimate, descriptive use applicable to the action of the story, while it was also appropriate that Mr. Spadafora was characterized more generally as a “paramedic” in the story itself.
He is a paramedic who, at the time of the accident, was an ambulance driver. And we are all praying for his speedy recovery.