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EMS Classics is a feature column I write for Canadian Paramedicine.

It is my attempt at giving the younger generation who work in EMS today, a snapshot into the history of ambulance service.

If you are interested in purchasing the images or the text copyright to any of the columns please email me at EMSClassics@shaw.ca

All proceeds are donated to the Paramedic Association of Canada Benevolent Society.

Smith's Ambulance staff, Edmonton, demonstrate 4 patient capacity in a 1970 Superior Pontiac ambulance.

Edmonton Journal EMSClassics.com Column

1970 Superior Pontiac 4 stretcher operated by Smith's Ambulance, Edmonton.

Ed Kalynchuk EMSClassics.com Column
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Column 23 December 2009/January 2010

'4 Stretcher' Ambulances

Have you ever heard of a 4 stretcher ambulance? Well, they were an important part of North American ambulance history. Ambulances with 4 stretcher capacity were first built for the military, then in the early 1950s some private, volunteer and municipal ambulance services in the US began ordering their car ambulances with raised roofs complete with 4 stretcher hardware. In communities with competing ambulance services, an ambulance operator could then advertise in the Yellow Pages that his was the only 4 stretcher ambulance in town! '4 stretcher' soon became a generic term for a Cadillac-type ambulance with a raised roof.

Some municipal councils and ambulance boards probably authorized the purchase of the more expensive raised roof ambulance, instead of the standard headroom model, because of the benefit of having 4 stretcher capacity. In actuality, the 3rd and 4th stretcher positions were seldom used. It was an onerous task for a driver and attendant to crawl into the ambulance with stretcher and patient, lift the stretcher high enough to suspend one side on the wall mounted hooks, and then with just one hand holding the stretcher, maneuver the ceiling suspension bars into place. Then do a repeat for the second hanging stretcher except this time there was even less space to maneuver. And then position the bottom two stretchers under the hanging ones. Imagine the anxiety of the patients on the bottom tier, concerned the stretcher just inches above them might collapse, or the unpleasantness of having body fluids dripping down on them. And pity a patient who was claustrophobic! Regarding patient care - well, there was very little as there was no space for the attendant to maneuver between the patients - administering oxygen was about all that could be done.

I spent some time working in a 4 stretcher Pontiac at Universal Ambulance in Calgary and always worried we would have to load a third or fourth stretcher patient. Of course, in the city we had the luxury of calling for another car. But imagine yourself out in the country in minus 30 degree weather and faced with making a decision: do you only load two stretcher patients, race to the hospital then return for the others, or do you take the time to load 4 stretcher patients and know they will all be extremely uncomfortable? Aren't you happy you're working in a modern ambulance with adequate space to care for a maximum of two stretcher patients?

Copyright 2010 Peter Adsten