Winnipeg Free Press

Here's how paramedics become better drivers

by Lesley Wimbush . Nov 18 2016
Lesley Wimbush / Postmedia Network Inc.Ambulance driver training session.

Lesley Wimbush / Postmedia Network Inc.

Ambulance driver training session.

Eyebrows knit in concentration and knuckles clenched around the wheel, Kevin Poitras — a first-year paramedic student at Fleming College in Peterborough — slams a black steel-toed boot hard against the brake pedal, bringing the ambulance screeching to a halt. Strapped in the back onto the bench seat, the four remaining students topple like dominoes, bouncing off each other with shrieks of laughter as they’re thrown against the limit of their seatbelts. It’s safe to say Kevin’s mastered the art of threshold braking.

It’s all part of a mandatory half-day driving program for the paramedic students, an intensive session of advanced car-control training that will give Fleming’s graduates an advantage over other applicants in their field. Fleming has included driver training as part of the paramedic curriculum since the program’s started in 2003.

“Our advisory committee met with local employers, who said one of the weaknesses of new grads coming out was their ability to drive a very large vehicle,” says Colleen Rafton, co-ordinator of Fleming’s Paramedic Program. Numerous studies by paramedic services revealed that newer drivers were far more likely to be involved in accidents if they hadn’t received some strategic driving experience.

Most of the students are recent high school grads with newly minted G licenses, whose only experience has been behind the wheel of a small car. Others have rural backgrounds, where they’ve grown up handling tractors and farm machinery, and a few have come up through the ranks of Fire Services. Pushing such a large vehicle to its limits can be intimidating, but the majority of these students have a self-assurance that’s understandable, given their chosen career path.

Their day begins with some basics. Most people adjust their seats for comfort, which doesn’t position them for optimum control of the wheel. Instructor James Mewett is an aeronautical engineer who, when he isn’t teaching car control to paramedics and wannabe race car drivers, designs and builds components for the aviation and air ambulance industry. He corrects their seating and hand positions, and walks them through a simple auto slalom.

“The important thing is smooth inputs, eyes up and looking far ahead instead of at the cones in front of you,” he tells the students.

It takes a few runs for them to feel comfortable with the dimensions of the ambulance, whose dual-wheel rear axle has a tendency to flatten cones. Then they’re ready to move on to the rest of the course, which includes tight-radius turns, emergency braking and a skidpad. Mewett explains that the best method of negotiating the course is known as the “racing line” — a route that forms the smoothest line through the turns with the least upset to the vehicle.

The skidpad is an exercise illustrating the exact point that tires give up their ability to both grip and steer. This entails driving around and around at increasing speeds until the vehicle refuses to turn any more and pushes straight off the circle. Adrenalin runs high, since most of the students start out convinced that the centrifugal force will cause them to flip. They eventually relax once Mewett shows them that by keeping their hands steady, and letting slightly off the gas, the ambulance regains its grip and once more finds the circle.

The exercises conclude with “threshold” or emergency braking, where students eventually shave car lengths off their stopping distances, and high-speed avoidance — swerving at the last minute to avoid a line of cones — while hopefully not flattening any in the process.

Racing line? Slalom? Squealing tires? You’re probably wondering how this could possibly have any practical benefits. But as any racer knows, a smooth line is not only faster, it also keeps the vehicle stable and therefore safer. Keeping eyes up and letting peripheral vision look after the cones ahead trains the driver to look far down the road, giving ample time to react to any potential incident. Sure, the skidpad is exciting, dramatic and noisy, but knowing instantly how to recover from a slide is a lifesaver on slippery off-ramps.

And then there’s the adrenalin factor. Once they’re out in the real world, these drivers will have to perform in situations the rest of us can only imagine. Expert control of the vehicle they’ll spend most of their working day in will keep them, and their passengers, safe.

The Paramedics Training program was developed by John Fader, who ran it from 2003 until he retired a couple of years ago. A veteran ambulance driver in Toronto during the 1980s, he attended some of the profession’s first defensive driving schools, “because they wanted us to stop crashing the cars up,” Fader says. “We all did a program at the B.P. Skid School with (well-known instructor) Gary Magwood. That saved my bacon, two or three times.

“I can recall one time going around Queen’s Park Circle, and it was real greasy because it had snowed quite a lot,” Fader says. “I was just crawling around the corner and the vehicle started to slide sideways, across the next lane. The instinct is to put your foot on the brake, but then I just kinda said, ‘Nope, remember, just steer.’ And I never even hit the curb on the outside.”

In the beginning, Fader used the school’s maintenance vehicles. Returning the trucks with shredded tires made them decidedly unpopular and eventually the local paramedic services stepped up and donated the ambulances.

The program’s current co-ordinator, Colleen Rafton, also a veteran paramedic, is fiercely supportive of the advanced training. But she’s under constant pressure to justify its expense, since it would be more cost-effective in the long run to replace it with a simulator.

Although other colleges do offer some training, Fader believes Fleming’s is the “most involved and dynamic,” and ideal preparation for paramedic testing and recertification.

“Some of our students went down to Toronto to get hired,” he says. “They said our driving course is ‘virtually identical to the way they tested us.’”

Student feedback at the end of the day was resoundingly positive.

“This is nothing like a car,” student Poitras says. “Honestly, this was very helpful for the situations we’re going to be in, going around cars on the side of the road and changing lanes quickly.”

“I didn’t think it would help that much, to be honest,” says Keenan Clauson, who posted the fastest time of the day on the complete course. “But wow, that was so good! I didn’t think I’d be able to do it like that — big difference from the first when I was knocking down cones everywhere. What an adrenalin rush — my heart is pounding.”

And how will today’s skills help him when he gets out there, in the real world?

“Well, I’m not gonna hit anybody,” Clauson says. “And I’ll be able to get out of the way if I need to.”

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

Lesley Wimbush / Postmedia Network Inc. An ambulance driver training session.

Lesley Wimbush / Postmedia Network Inc.

An ambulance driver training session.