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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.

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Photo courtesy Dr. Hans Waldeck

EMSClassics.com Column

Medics Van der Heijden (left) and De Vries demonstrate the loading of a stretcher into a horse powered 1935 Ford sedan in front of De Telegraaf Building in Amsterdam.

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Column 35 February/March 2012

Horse Powered Ambulances

In 1940 the armed forces of Germany invaded The Netherlands and soon after a shortage of gasoline and diesel fuel resulted in the closing of 9,000 of the Netherlands' 12,000 refueling stations. The occupying forces also appropriated many of the motorized vehicles in The Netherlands, including ambulances.

Although the call for ambulance service in The Netherlands was as great as ever, without fuel, the few remaining ambulances were useless. Ingenuity was required. Some ambulances were converted to run on benzene gas which was stored in large cylinders on the roof of the ambulance or towed on trailers behind the ambulance. Other Dutch ambulances were modified so they could be pulled by a team of horses but even then, there were not enough ambulances to meet the demand. The solution was to convert some of the remaining private automobiles in The Netherlands from family sedans into horse-powered ambulances.

The 1935 Ford sedan in the photo is one of those improvised ambulances, put into service by the private firm Eerste Particuliere Model Ambulance (EPMA) in Amsterdam. The entire front end and power train of the car was removed in order to reduce weight and thereby ease the burden on the horse. An elevated seat was mounted in front of the windshield for the driver and the car's top-hinged trunk lid was replaced with a side-hinged door to accomodate the loading and unloading of stretcher patients. One of the car's headlights was repositioned onto the roof of the car and was operated by a battery. For safety reasons a large red cross was painted onto the roof of the car. A horn and siren were not required - the clip clop sound of the horse's hoofs on the pavement was adequate for alerting pedestrians and cyclists. This improvised ambulance was operated by a three-man crew - a coachman to stay with the horse and two medics to take care of the patients.

Although response times may have been long, patients being transported in these improvised ambulances during the war probably were grateful they were receiving any ambulance service at all.

Note - after this column was published I received additional information as to the reason the car's powertrain had been removed. It seems the German army was confiscating many Dutch vehicles but only those that were in operable condition. So, in an attempt to keep possesion of their vehicles some vehicle owners would remove the powertrain and give it to a friendly farmer to hide under the hay or hide it in the back yard under the coal shed.

Copyright 2012 Peter Adsten