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What is an ambulance?

4-minute read

An ambulance is a vehicle equipped to provide emergency care to sick or injured people and to get them to hospital. Ambulances can also be used to transport patients between hospitals. 

There are several types of ambulance, all specially equipped and including:

  • vans (the most common type of ambulance)
  • four-wheel drives
  • motorbikes
  • buses
  • airplanes
  • helicopters

Air ambulances and helicopter ambulances are used mainly in rural, remote or wilderness areas and in certain types of emergency situation.

Ambulances can be based at hospitals, clinics, stand-alone centres or airports.

What's in an ambulance?

Ambulances contain the equipment needed to stabilise someone who is ill or injured and to get them to hospital. That includes stretchers, defibrillators, spine boards, oxygen and oxygen masks, cervical (neck) collars, splints, bandages and a range of drugs and intravenous fluids.  

Some ambulances are equipped to allow doctors to give anaesthetics and perform emergency surgery.

Ambulances are staffed by a trained crew. They might be known as first responders, ambulance officers, patient transport officers or referred to by using another name. Some – but not all – ambulance officers are paramedics.

What do paramedics do?

A paramedic is a trained health professional who can provide rapid emergency medical assessment and care to people who need it. They manage people who are experiencing:

Some paramedics have a diploma in paramedical sciences which they have obtained through vocational training. Ambulance services are moving towards requiring a university degree in paramedic science or health science. Intensive care paramedics have additional postgraduate qualifications.

Find out more here about the training of paramedics and other staff.

When to call for an ambulance

You should call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance when there is an emergency, such as when someone:

  • is experiencing a suspected heart attack, or has unexplained chest pain
  • has sustained injuries, or they are trapped following a motorcar or bike accident
  • has collapsed suddenly or lost consciousness
  • has fallen badly
  • is having breathing difficulties
  • is experiencing heavy bleeding
  • has one or more broken bones

What to do if it’s not an emergency

If you or someone else has a common health problem, such as an infection or illness, consider these options rather than calling an ambulance:

  • visiting a general practitioner
  • seeing a pharmacist
  • calling Healthdirect on 1800 022 222 for advice from a registered nurse

What happens when I call an ambulance?

The person who answers your triple zero (000) call will ask you questions to decide whether it’s an emergency.

If they consider it is an emergency, they will send an ambulance. They might also give first aid advice on what to do until the ambulance arrives. If so, it’s important that you follow the advice.

If they consider it’s not an emergency, they might transfer you to a Healthdirect registered nurse. They will be able to provide you phone assistance.

Will I always be taken to a hospital?

When the ambulance arrives, the ambulance officers or paramedics who attend will assess you. You might be treated on site or they might decide you need to be taken to hospital. Alternatively, you could be referred to other healthcare services.

What is the cost of an ambulance?

The charges, if you call an ambulance or if someone else orders an ambulance for you, vary between states. State ambulance services may charge a call-out fee or a per kilometre fee or both.

The costs can be very high. For example, in Victoria the average cost of emergency ambulance transport is more than $1,100. If you have private health insurance, it might cover some of the costs.

In Tasmania and Queensland, ambulance costs for permanent residents of those states are covered by the government.

Aged pensioner concession holders are entitled to free ambulance services or free emergency ambulance services in the ACT, NSW, Northern Territory, Victoria and Western Australia. Health care concession card holders can get free ambulance services in some states. In all states and territories, Department of Veterans Affairs Gold Card holders have their ambulance costs covered.

In Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, you can pay an annual subscription through the state ambulance service to cover possible ambulance fees.

Medicare does not cover ambulance fees. Get more details here about what ambulance services each state covers.

Other medical and non-emergency transport schemes

Non-emergency patient transport schemes also vary between states. Transport to or between hospitals under these schemes may need to be authorised by a doctor, registered nurse or a hospital official.

Find out more here about other transport services and patient travel subsidy schemes, and check with your local health department.

Last reviewed: January 2019

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