You'd have a
hard time finding anyone at my rescue squad who is less enthusiastic
about becoming an emergency driver than I am. Some people really do enjoy
it -- they'd much rather be up front driving the ambulance than in back
dealing with the messiness of human suffering. I admit that there is a
certain excitement that comes with flying down the highway at high speeds,
with siren wings bright with swirling red and white lights. (I'd call
it more a suspension of reality than a thrill.) But, strange as it may
seem, I like being in back with the patients.
that's not all my squad wants of me. For rather complex reasons that cannot
be explained without a boring lecture on internal structure, it's not
particularly cool for me to be a firefighter on the heavy rescue squad
without also being capable of driving the ambulance. It's seen as shirking
my responsibilities. So, while it is well within my power (and inclination)
to resist this kind of social pressure, I elected to go with the flow
and take the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course at the county fire &
rescue training academy.
To be honest,
the prospect that I would be able to pass the driving course was so remote
that it seemed like a nice gesture of goodwill, and nothing more. The
ambulance is a hulking Freightliner -- like driving a commercial truck,
far larger than anything I had ever handled in my life. It feels like
I'm trying to pilot a ship. The first time I was set loose on the driving
course, many orange cones were squashed flat, sent flying, or otherwise
Around the course
I go, backwards and forwards through the various exercises. The stations
are titled in the same way that kayakers and canoeists give names to popular
stretches of whitewater. Alley Dock. Diminishing Clearance. Offset Alley.
One day we go
to the nearby police training center for skid instruction. We're all paired
up and put into old beater cars, each with dings and dents too numerous
to count, as the instructors spread a slick fluid on the driving course.
Then, one car at a time, we're instructed to accelerate down a ramp and
slam on the brakes, sending us into a wild and rather terrifying skid.
The world spins and gradually stops. Then we line up to do it again, practicing
techniques to regain control of the car. The instructors put down a line
of three cones directly in the path of our skids. "Here are three
children crossing the street," they tell us. "Don't kill them."
I come flying
down the ramp and pound the brakes as I hit the entrance to the course.
The back end of the car starts spinning around on me and I release the
brakes and countersteer, but I overcompensate and instinctively hit the
brakes again and the rear end swings around in the other direction and
I hear the thud as I take out one cone. I drag it about thirty feet under
Again. I come
flying down the ramp and pound the brakes. Car starts to skid, rear end
swinging around and as I countersteer I feel the wheels pick up some friction,
just enough. Our heads jerk sideways and then the other way as the car
swings around the line of cones and straightens up. The three cones remain
The rest of the
test is in an ambulance. We do a road driving test, just like I remember
from when I got my license at age 16. I'm actually confident in this portion
of the test because I'm a pretty careful driver out on the street. Then
we must run through the (non-slicked) cone course in under 8 minutes,
touching no more than three cones. Here I offer myself little hope of
success; the vehicle still feels too large, too foreign to me. So I'm
relaxed in my hopelessness, and take my time. I touch one cone and complete
the course with a time of 7:58.
I pass the class.
Yay. The thing is, that wasn't really the way I expected things to turn
out. There's still plenty of time before I actually have to drive emergency
calls -- I'll have to pass a detailed area-knowledge exam and a bunch
of other tests. But... me, in the driver's seat? I can hardly see it.