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If you’ve ever been in or near an ambulance, then you understand it can be a very stressful experience. Regardless of the medical emergency, the bright lights, loud sirens and fast-paced energy tend to make people extremely anxious. However, have you ever considered how paramedic services may feel for someone who also experiences sensory sensitivity or sensory overload? For many people, the experience of riding in an ambulance can be extremely stressful and anxiety-inducing for several reasons. Read on to learn strategies to create sensory-friendly emergency services and ambulance rides.
For the purpose of this blog post, we interviewed Carly who currently works as a part-time paramedic. Carly is a pseudonym, they wished to remain anonymous for this blog post.
What are sensory-rich components of ambulances?
There are several aspects of riding in an ambulance that are “sensory-rich” and stressful. Many people experience sensory sensitivity to any one of their 8 senses. Therefore, they can become extremely uncomfortable or even agitated by specific sensory experiences. Some people also experience sensory overload.
Sensory-rich ambulance triggers include:
Bright and flashing lights
A sensory trigger for many people is what they see. Ambulances often have different colored lights, light red, and blue. They are very bright. They also flash. These lights are important for the ambulance to be seen. In addition, the bright, flashing lights alert other drivers to move their vehicles out of the way. These lights are particularly a challenge for someone with sensory sensitivity or who experiences sensory overload.
Another common characteristic of all emergency vehicles that you likely notice is the loud and continuous sirens. Noise can also be a sensory trigger. Sirens are irritating both for people in the ambulance, as well as pedestrians, Additionally, according to Carly, ambulances have the loudest siren of all types of emergency vehicles. Therefore, ambulance sirens are likely bothersome for everyone.
Inaccessibility of emergency vehicles
Additionally, Carly explains that many ambulances create special challenges for people who move differently. Ambulances cannot easily transport people who use mobility aids like a wheelchair. Only certain emergency vehicles have appropriate ramps and aids to for people who use wheelchairs, or a walker or a cane. Carly shares that very few ambulances are wheelchair accessible. Transporting someone who uses a specialized wheelchair on a stretcher is not always the best solution.
Another factor that Carly discussed that was problematic about ambulances is the sterile environment inside the vehicle. Due to necessary safety protocols, ambulances tend to a relatively uncomfortable and unwelcoming space. It is often small and cramped. There is a lot of unfamiliar equipment, that also has noise and lights, inside the ambulance. The space inside an ambulance can be scary and anxiety-inducing.
How to make a sensory-friendly ambulance
Many of the sensory-rich components of ambulances are for safety purposes. However, there are changes that can be made to the ambulance environment. There are also changes that can be made to the experience of riding in an ambulance itself that make is sensory-friendly. Additionally, these sensory-friendly changes benefit just about everyone! Ultimately, these changes simply help to make the experience a more comfortable and less stressful one.
Communicate with a dispatcher about sirens and lights
The first suggestion that Carly noted to improve the sensory-friendliness of ambulances is potentially switching off the sirens and lighting. If you call for an ambulance, you can ask for the sirens and/or lights to be turned off close to the destination, for example This can help to make the experience more calming and less stressful for the person experiencing the emergency. However, Carly notes this is not always possible, depending on the type of emergency.
Additionally, Carly notes that if people are bothered by the lights inside the ambulance, there may be an option to dim them. Although this is not always possible to safely treat a patient, it can be requested in certain circumstances.
Managing crowd control
Another important strategy that Carly recommends to make the ambulance experience sensory-friendly is to manage the crowd. Crowds can often be extremely stressful. The lack of personal space and increased noise are sensory triggers. For example, Carly ensures that only immediate family members are present. Dispersing onlookers is critical.
Provide calm, relaxing and constant communication
Carly explains that an important part of making the ambulance sensory-friendly is changing communication. It is inevitable that in an emergency situation, everyone feels elevated levels of stress. Carly always talks to patients and family or caregivers in a calm and relaxed tone. She informs the patient and family members with as much information as possible while providing treatment. Carly also creates visual stories for patients about their care by explaining step-by-step what she is doing.
Additionally, Carly notes that she acts with confidence when working with patients. Although she doesn’t provide false promises, she makes people feel comfortable with their care.
Another important strategy that Carly recommends is sensory kits. Currently, most ambulances do not have sensory kits on board. However, people are able to bring their own kits and sensory tools with them into the ambulance. For example, some people may find it comforting to bring sunglasses, weight lap pads or noise-cancelling headphones.
Additionally, some paramedics have begun to create their own sensory kits to bring on the ambulance with them! This can be extremely beneficial for individuals with sensory sensitivities. Furthermore, consider checking out this research article, “Creating a Sensory-Friendly Pediatric Emergency Department” by Wood et al., (2019), to learn about the benefits of sensory-friendly training of healthcare workers in pediatric emergency departments1.
There are several strategies that can make ambulance rides sensory-friendly.
Special thanks to Carly for her valuable contributions to this blog post!
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- Wood, E. B., Halverson, A., Harrison, G., & Rosenkranz, A. (2019). Creating a Sensory-Friendly Pediatric Emergency Department. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 45(4), 415–424. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jen.2018.12.002