Siren Malfunction?

ambulance-siren-lights-07012015I’ve been working in EMS in one form or another for about 10 years. So, although I am new to the system I currently work in, I am not new to EMS. I had still never encountered this issue before.

My partner, Bob, a true veteran of both EMS and of the system I work in, was in the passenger seat. I was driving the ambulance as we responded Code-3 to a call in a neighboring city for a fallen person/lift assist call. It was early evening rush hour, and traffic was heavy. The way our system works, when we respond to other cities, we switch to their radio channel and identify our unit and our ETA so that first responders know that EMS is enroute to their location. As we were heading down a busy state highway, I changed the siren tone a couple times to help move traffic along. My partner (again, keep in mind, a veteran with over 30 years of service in EMS) selected the proper channel on the radio and picked up the mic to call the neighboring city on the radio. He keyed up and said (city names changed for anonymity) “Anytown Fire, this is Main City EMS Medic 3, enroute to 123 Main Street. ETA 15 minutes.”

Normal radio traffic stuff, but in the back of my mind, something didn’t seem right. The Anytown Fire Department didn’t acknowledge his traffic, either. As I’m focusing on driving, watching traffic, checking cross-streets, and watching my speed, I’m trying to devote a small portion of my brain to figuring out what’s not quite right. I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure out what. Bob keyed up again and tried their dispatch this time. “Anytown dispatch, this is Main City Medic 3, we’re enroute to 123 Main Street, ETA 10 minutes, we are unable to get Anytown Fire on the radio.” This time, I figured out what didn’t seem right. When Bob keyed up the radio, the siren cut out. This didn’t make sense. I became worried that, since our normal unit had been taken in for preventative maintenance, and we were in a backline unit, that maybe there was some kind of short, or the batteries on the truck were going bad, and maybe the radio wasn’t working? Or possibly somehow shorting out the siren? Visions of flames shooting out of the siren control box started running through my head. As I reached for the siren tone knob, I thought, “does this panel feel warm? is there fire in the dashboard? am I going to die in this ambulance?” People were also giving me weird looks as our siren turned on and off each time Bob keyed up. I asked my partner about it. He said maybe it’s because we’re using the VHF/mutual aid radio, and not our digital radio, and the VHF draws more power. Bob, after all, is a veteran, has been working in this system longer than I have, and I tried to process this and see if that answer computed. As my brain was mulling this over, still telling myself that this didn’t quite make sense, Anytown FD came up on the radio and asked “is there a responding Main City EMS unit on the air?” My partner grabbed the radio mic again and keyed up “Anytown FD, this is Main City Medic 3 – we’re now 5 minutes out.” Again, as he keyed up, the siren cut out. This time, my brain clicked. I realized my partner wasn’t holding the radio mic. He was holding (and talking into) the PA microphone for the siren. So as he keyed up, the siren cut out because he was basically making an announcement over the siren speakers.

I, of course, started laughing. Not just chortling. LAUGHING. I was laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath and I had tears running down my cheeks. Bob, veteran that he is, I think just assumed that yet another “rookie” medic had lost his mind and tried to ignore me, and went back to focusing his attention on the radio. He keyed up again, the siren cut out again, and this time, I could hear his voice, BOOMING, coming from the siren speakers, announcing to the world over the PA system on the ambulance, “Anytown Dispatch, advise Anytown FD that we seem to be unable to raise them on the radio.” Of course now I also realized why people were shooting us strange looks. Imagine an ambulance coming down the road behind you, Wee-Woo-Wee-Woo-ing away, and all of a sudden the siren stops and you hear the voice of some guy, just talking to you, through the PA system. Every time he keyed up the radio I was laughing harder. Finally I caught my breath and before Bob keyed up again, I said “WAIT! THAT’S THE PA MIC!”

He paused, looked down at the microphone in his hand, and realized I was right. After hanging up the PA mic and picking up the radio mic, we were able to reach the other city’s fire crew on the radio just about 30 seconds before we finally pulled up on-scene. I was still laughing as I put the ambulance in park, and got some additional strange looks from the first responders in the front yard of the house attending to the patient on the sidewalk.

In the end, nobody got hurt, nobody got in trouble, and we made it to the scene in decent enough time that I don’t think the siren interruptions caused any real delay in traffic-clearing. It was still hilarious, and I still laugh about it even now, as I write this story out. This experience taught me a lesson about making sure I have the correct microphone in my hand before keying up, and also reinforced my belief that my brain knows what’s going on long before I am able to process the situation and I need to learn to recognize that “something’s not quite right” feeling as soon as it goes off, because it could be something bad, or it could be something really, REALLY funny. Either way, I don’t want to miss it.

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