The Ambulances I Worked In

This is not of much interest to most readers, and is mainly by way of me making a record of something personal. I spent a third of my life working in and driving ambulance vehicles on the streets of Central London. (We drove one day, worked in the back the next) I often look back on the jobs I did at the time, but rarely even mention the vehicles that we used to traverse the City, with its difficult traffic conditions. When I first started in the job, we still had some vehicles that resembled museum pieces, even then. As well as the distinctive two-tone siren, known as ‘Nee-Naws’, we had a bell to warn of our approach too. It was fitted into the front of the vehicle, and operated electronically from a switch inside.

By the time I was on operational emergency duties full-time, most of the vehicle fleet had been replaced with the more modern Bedford CF (General Motors) 2.3 litre ambulance. With three-speed automatic transmission, very light (not power) steering, and a thin-skinned lightweight body, this ambulance was very easy to drive, and to get around the narrow streets in parts of London. The sliding doors meant that we could park quite close to obstructions and still exit the vehicle, and they were also welcomed in hot weather, when we could secure them in the open position. They still had an electronic bell, which had now been moved inside, in front of the engine.

I worked in vehicles like that one for a very long time. The equipment inside had hardly changed from the 1960s, but the nature of the job was changing faster than it ever had. We were being expected to travel longer distances to cover work in other districts of London, and more and more equipment was introduced, making the interiors of the ambulances overcrowded, and unsuitable for the work. And it was also decided that we could no longer have sliding doors, due to ‘health and safety’ considerations.

After a lot of consultation between management and the purchasing authorities, with some input from the staff too, a new ambulance was commissioned for London. General Motors lost the contract to Leyland-Daf, now part of the old British Leyland car company, and we got the ‘modern’, wide-bodied ambulance. This had a lot more storage inside, and dedicated mountings for equipment like defibrillators and cardiac monitors. Still with automatic transmission, and now with full power steering, it boasted a very big engine in the V8 3.5 that was sourced from Range Rover.

Of course, it was heavier, so needed that extra power. It was also rather ‘top-heavy’, with a tendency to wallow when pushed hard. The extra width also made it less useful in getting through dense traffic, or negotiating small alleyways in some areas. In general, it was less suitable for the job in such a crowded city, and was initially unpopular with operational staff. I worked in vehicles identical to the one above for the latter half of my career, up to and including my last ever shift. We lost our beloved sliding doors, and the bell inside the bonnet too. The bells were removed, and stored in the garage workshops. Then they would be polished, mounted on a wooden stand, and presented as much-desired retirement gifts to old hands. Unfortunately, by the time I left, they had all gone.

I found this photo of the staff outside a London Ambulance Station. It is not the one where I worked, and I don’t know anyone in the picture. It was taken in the 1980s, but looks almost ‘vintage’. That was the uniform I was issued with when I joined, and wore for half of my service.

48 thoughts on “The Ambulances I Worked In

  1. You forgot to mention that loading a patient / punter on the stretcher, with the newer vehicles was a lot easier than humping the stretcher up the back steps on the old Bedford.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I overlooked the importance of the vehicles when I was writing up all the ambulance posts. It suddenly dawned on me that someone else might be interested in them. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Terrific mรฉmoires, Pete – I always wondered how difficult it was to navigate the crowded London streets…and a shame that the bell you deserved was gone by the time it was yours…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, John. We usually had to block streets when we stopped to attend emergencies, as many were too narrow. Getting through the traffic was generally done by driving on the wrong side of the road, straight at the oncoming vehicles. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Pete, did the station have residential quarters or did you live at home? Just curious what your shift was like and how many calls you averaged a shift.

    I cannot imagine driving an ambulance, horns going, weaving around traffic and not knowing what you are walking into. That is high stress!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It wasn’t residential, Maggie, though we did have showers, and a kitchen to prepare food in. Not that we ever got time to eat it. ๐Ÿ™‚
      When I started, we did 8-hour shifts. I worked in one of the busiest places, so would do at least 8 jobs a shift, sometimes 12, depending how far we had to travel. When we arrived, we generally went straight out on our first job, and rarely came back until after the shift had ended. The only time we stopped was to replenish oxygen and other equipment, or to fill up with petrol.
      Shifts later extended to 10 and 12 hours, not long before I left to work for the Police.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love seeing, and hearing the evolution of equipment. You have me thinking of the vehicles, weapons, and uniform changes I have seen. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane. Now if I can just find where I stashed those photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow! What memories! I’ve only seen the most recent ones and I commiserate with you that you didn’t get one of the bells. Love the really old models. I hope some have been preserved. I love those old car rallies, and I’ve always been fond of working vehicles as well. Thanks, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Olga. They used to have a ‘Museum Fleet’ when I was still working there, but I have no idea if it still exists now. Many of the Bedford type were sold off, eagerly snapped up by people who loved to convert them into motor caravans, or use them as mobile snack bars.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  6. I see just one woman in the photo – was that typical in your experience? Judging by the ‘Ambulance’ programme at least half the staff are female now

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It very much depended on the location. Many ambulance stations did not have female toilets or showers. Therefore many bases, including large ones like Chelsea, had no female staff at all. In places that had those female facilities, women could make up almost half the staff, sometimes more. Many were ex-army drivers, or medics. Where I worked for most of my time in the job, we had just 14 staff, in a small sub-station. By the time I left, 5 of those were women.
      I believe that women now account for over 40% of ambulance staff around the country, but I don’t know the exact numbers.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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