Frequently asked questions

Below you will find a list of frequently asked questions and answers. If you'd like an answer to another question, please contact us.

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An ambulance crew came to see me but didn't take me to hospital. Why?

South Western Ambulance Service aims to provide the Right Care in the Right Place at the Right Time; this is our Right Care initiative. When you call 999 our aim is to provide you with care that meets your clinical need, which is delivered by the most appropriate clinician and is provided at a location that is most suitable to you and the wider healthcare community.

At times conveyance may often be the most appropriate care pathway for example, if you have complex clinical or mental health needs.  However, the Right Care initiative aims to support such conveyance to the most appropriate care provider, whether this is to the patients GP, a Minor Injuries Unit, a Walk-in Centre or Mental Health Facility.

Alternatively the provider of care may be brought to the patient through the use of specialist nursing teams like Community Matrons, District Nurses, Out of Hours services or other specialist providers.

Within the South West health community there are currently 2,750 alternative Urgent Care services which are available to the Trust to help manage patients closer to their homes and reduce the reliance on Emergency Departments. These services include Minor Injury Units, Walk-in Centres, Community Nurses and Rapid Response Teams.

An ambulance has blocked my car in - what can I do?

Our staff will always try to avoid obstructing other road users whether this is when parking a vehicle or during transit. If you discover that your vehicle has been blocked in this could be because the condition of the patient being attended requires immediate intervention; as soon as the patient's condition allows the ambulance crew will move the vehicle. On these occasions we understand how frustrating this may be, but we ask you to please be patient and the vehicle will be on its way as soon as possible.

Can my guide dog travel with me on an ambulance?

In any emergency situation the patient will always come first. If you have a guide or assistance dog a decision on whether they can travel with you will be made on a case by case scenario. Please be assured that ambulance staff will do all they can to ensure the safety of your assistance dog while they provide you with treatment.

I've lost something which I may have left on the ambulance, how can I find it?

We have several enquiries regarding lost personal items that are subsequently found. In the first instance, please could you check all your pockets, bags and other receptacles for your missing items.

If you travel in an ambulance, any items you have with you will be handed over to the staff at the receiving unit. We would recommend checking with the hospital department you attended whether they have found your items.

If you have a lost property enquiry for SWASFT, please forward this to the Patient Experience team on either 01392 261 585 or

I've seen an ambulance parked on double yellow lines - is this allowed?

Ambulances are allowed to park on white or yellow lines providing they are engaged on official duties, eg it was necessary to park at that point to carry out essential duties or to be as close as possible to the patient they are treating.

Our ambulance crews are trained to ensure that they park vehicles in such a way that will not cause a nuisance to other road users but also ensure that there is no delay in attending the patient.

My GP said I needed to go to hospital in an ambulance - when should this arrive?

If a GP arranges for an ambulance to take you into hospital then the length of time you will wait will vary depending upon on the arrangements made by the GP based on your condition .

There will be times when there may be a delay in an ambulance reaching you; we will always do our absolute best to arrive as quickly as possible, but there may be times when delays are beyond our control. When we know that a delay is likely to occur then we will endeavour to let you know as soon as possible so you can be prepared.

What can I take with me in the ambulance?

The ambulance environment is designed to take you safely to hospital. The ambulance crew are unable to carry anything that would create an unsafe working environment and this is particularly important if they may be required to drive at speed. We understand that it might be upsetting to travel without a piece of equipment that you rely on. However, if you require a mobility aid these can be provided at the hospital. 

What happens when you dial 999?

When you call 999, an operator will ask you which emergency service you need. You should say, Ambulance.

Your 999 call will then be passed to one of our trained call-handlers in our Clinical Hub (Control Room).  You will be asked for details of where you are, for you to confirm the number you are calling from and for details of what has happened. 

What should I do when I am driving and see an ambulance driving towards, or behind, me with lights and sirens on?

Our ambulance crews are trained to drive the vehicles under emergency conditions. They do drive with all due care and attention; however they do need your help to move through the traffic as quickly and safely as possible.

Here are some tips that will help you stay calm and safe and help our emergency vehicles get to their destination without delay.

  • Look and listen
    Check your mirrors regularly and make sure your music is not too loud.
  • Consider the route and size of the vehicle
    You may need to move over even if the emergency vehicle is traveling in the opposite direction.
  • Signal your intentions using your indicators
    This will help the emergency vehicle and other road users know what action you are taking.
  • Pull in or move over safely
    You may not need to stop completely.
  • Don't stop opposite any obstructions
    This will make the road narrower.
  • Avoid mounting kerbs/pavements where possible
    Be aware of pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists.
  • Signal when you are pulling away
    Motorists behind you may still be moving, be careful when re-joining the road.
  • Stay alert
    More emergency vehicles may be on the way. 

When are you allowed to sound your ambulance sirens?

Ambulance staff can activate the vehicle sirens at any time of day or night. However, they will only use the sirens when it is appropriate and necessary to make other road users, including those on foot, aware of the presence of an ambulance. 

When I called 999 why was I asked so many questions?

When you call 999, you will be asked a number of questions by the Call Taker. Some of these questions may seem irrelevant at the time. However, the answers you provide to these questions will establish the type of help that is provided to you. By asking these key questions we can ensure that emergency medical help is sent to life threatening incidents as quickly as possible. Please be assured that the questions being asked and answered are not delaying help being provided; however it is important that the assessment is completed to ensure that the patient receives the most appropriate response. 

When I called why was I asked to touch the patient's skin?

Anyone making a call on the behalf of a patient will be taken through the questioning as well. As part of this questioning they will be asked to check if the patient is conscious (awake), alert and if they are breathing. At times they might be asked to touch the patient’s skin to advise the call-handler if the patient’s skin feels clammy or to give an idea of their temperature. As the caller is the call-handler’s only connection with the patient at this time, they will need to confirm this information as it will help establish the most appropriate response for the patient.  If an ambulance response is necessary and life-saving interventions are required prior to the ambulance arrival, they may be asked if they are able to assist; moving the patient or providing basic life support. The call-handler will be able to provide instructions on what to do as necessary. 

When should I call 999?

It is sometimes difficult to know whether or not you need an ambulance. We would urge you to dial 999 if you or the person you are calling on behalf of:

  • Is unconscious or not breathing
  • Has a penetrating injury to the neck, chest, abdomen or thigh
  • Has had a severe allergic reaction
  • Has uncontrolled bleeding
  • Is having an asthma attack and is unresponsive to medication
  • Has severe chest pain (heart attack)
  • Is fitting (if this is unusual for the patient)
  • Has taken an overdose
  • Has been submerged in water for more than one minute
  • Has fallen more than 10 feet
  • Traumatic back/spinal/neck pain 

Who can travel with me in the ambulance?

The privacy and clinical need of our patients is of paramount importance to us. There is limited space available in our vehicles to enable additional passengers to travel safely. It is for this reason that escorts for patients are kept to a minimum, usually only one person, who is ordinarily a relative, carer or friend. However, this will depend on the circumstances of the event. The safety of the patient and ambulance crew will be considered prior to agreeing any additional escort. 

Who makes the decision to send an ambulance?

When you call 111 or 999 you will speak to a trained Call Handler. The Call Handler will ask a number of questions about your condition. This process is called triage. The electronic triage system that the Call Handlers was designed by the NHS for NHS use; the answers you give to the questions will make the decision regarding what help you require from the ambulance service/111 service; this response will meet your clinical need. Sometimes this will be an ambulance, but sometimes this will be a recommendation to visit an NHS Walk-in centre, a GP or another NHS provider. 

Why are the engines running in your vehicles when they are stood still?

Frontline ambulances are very specialist and very complex vehicles. They carry essential items of clinical and diagnostic equipment that can provide life-saving treatment to patients and also transmit 'real time' information to the hospitals regarding a patient's condition. Vehicles also require advanced tracking and mobile data technologies to ensure ambulances can be on scene within minutes of a 999 call. All this equipment requires significant power from the batteries on board. Failure to keep these batteries fully charged can result in equipment not working correctly or at worst shutting down which may pose a significant threat to lives. In order to keep the battery charged the vehicle must be left running during some periods of rest.

Ambulance engines may also be left running to ensure the patient compartment, medications and equipment remain at a regulated temperature. In many cases patients are on board requiring urgent medical attention. During this time regulated power supply to all medical and diagnostic equipment is critical. Turning the engine off may result in a break to the real-time diagnostic information feed into the hospital or vital patient life support systems failing.

Vehicles can often be seen idling on the roadside or at a scene for the reasons identified above. If a power supply is not available regular charging is required by keeping the engine running. Idling also allows for a rapid departure from a scene. Lastly, in cold weather, leaving an ambulance running allows the diesel engine to operate more efficiently.

To ensure this vehicle idling remains balanced, staff are regularly required to undertake driver training programmes to ensure they understand vehicle power requirements. When vehicle are on station, vehicles do not need to run their engines as they are plugged into charging units that ensure the vehicle maintains a state of readiness.

South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust is committed to continuously reducing its carbon footprint and regularly reviews systems and practices to ensure this happens via the Trust Sustainable Development Action Plan.

Why did it take so long for the ambulance to arrive?

Information regarding your clinical need is gathered during the 999 call; from there an assessment will be made as to what the most appropriate help is for you. All ambulance resources are prioritised so that patients that require emergency treatment are attended to first.

On occasions it might be necessary to divert an ambulance that is on its way to see you to another patient who has a more serious, life threatening, clinical need. That is not to say that you will not receive an ambulance. Our Clinical Hub (control centre) staff reassess each situation as it arises and if the ambulance was on its way to you is diverted to another patient they will ensure that the next most appropriate resource is sent to attend you.  

Why did they ask to speak with the patient when they were feeling so unwell?

When you call the ambulance service on behalf of a patient you will speak to a call-handler who may ask to speak directly to the patient. This helps us to gain a better understanding of the patient’s clinical need. This information then informs the type of help that will be provided to the patient. 

Why didn't they send an ambulance?

The response you are given may be an emergency ambulance, a smaller rapid response vehicle or it may take the form of a visit from an Emergency Care Practitioner (this person has extra clinical skills over and above those of a standard Paramedic or other clinically trained ambulance staff). Another alternative might be that you receive clinical advice over the phone. We have Clinical Supervisors working in our Clinical hubs (Control rooms) that are clinically qualified and can provide medical advice over the phone to callers with less serious conditions.

Clinical Supervisors are well equipped with the skills necessary to call you back and further assess and advise you if your initial assessment has determined that you are suffering from illnesses or injuries that are less serious.

During the call they aim to establish the best course of treatment for you. This could involve being cared for at home, being referred to your GP or local pharmacy, or it might be that you are advised to visit a local NHS walk in centre

Please be assured that you will receive the most appropriate care to meet your medical need.

Why do ambulance staff have to spend time on paperwork?

When an ambulance crew arrives with you they are required to undertake some clinical observations. It is important for the ambulance staff to understand and document the events leading to the 999 call and your condition upon their arrival. Please be assured that our ambulance staff will not unnecessarily delay in providing the most appropriate care to you or delay any journey. 

Why do you have different vehicles - why aren't they all ambulances?

The ambulance service responds to a wide variety of medical emergencies and this means it is necessary for the types of vehicles to be varied.  We have vehicles that can travel ‘off-road’, helicopters, small Rapid Response cars and we even have staff who travel on motorbikes and bicycles. This means a member of clinically trained ambulance staff can respond to emergencies and provide potentially life-saving treatment as quickly as possible. This also means that patients who can be treated at home can be so, allowing the vehicles designed to transport patients to hospital can concentre on patients whose condition is more critical. 

Why is there always an ambulance parked on the high street?

The ambulance service uses sophisticated planning software to determine the most likely locations of emergency calls. If this is in an area not covered by an ambulance station, vehicles may be moved closer and placed on standby so they may be available to respond to an emergency should one occur.  

Why wasn't I told there was going to be a delay?

If we have arranged help to attend you we will make every effort to reach you as soon as possible. However, on occasions where there is a high demand being made on our service, we might not be able to provide help to you as soon as we would like. When this happens we will do our utmost to keep you informed of any delay. 

Will arriving in an ambulance mean I get treated more quickly in hospital?

No. The Emergency Department hospital team will prioritise all patients based on their clinical condition no matter how they arrive at hospital. However if your condition is life threatening or needing immediate attention the ambulance crew are able to make the hospital aware that they are on route.