Imposter ambulances threaten public trust and safety

Bill introduced in Texas legislature seeks to prohibit imposter ambulances and is a model for all states


Reputation. Brand Recognition. Professionalism. Respect.   

We all work very to build and maintain these concepts in our professional and personal lives. For EMS, law enforcement and fire professionals, there is another, even more important asset we cherish – community trust. It takes years, even decades to build community trust and, unfortunately, some use that community trust and brand recognition in ways that are disrespectful to the profession. 

For EMS professionals, the patient compartment of the ambulance is where magic – no, miracles – happen. Babies are born, lives are saved, pain is relieved, and fears are calmed. The mere presence of an ambulance at the scene of a major car crash brings a sense of calm and relief to the injured. The sweet sound of an approaching siren is music to the ears of the mother whose child is struggling to breathe. An ambulance is unique, it’s special.

A Fort Worth, Texas ambulance was converted from carrying a stretcher and medical supplies, to accommodating a wet bar and stripper pole, complete with neon lights. It was advertised as available for parties and sporting events. (Image Matt Zavadsky)
A Fort Worth, Texas ambulance was converted from carrying a stretcher and medical supplies, to accommodating a wet bar and stripper pole, complete with neon lights. It was advertised as available for parties and sporting events. (Image Matt Zavadsky)

For some, the emotions conjured up by the sight of an ambulance also make for an outstanding marketing opportunity, or worse, a paradox to be capitalized on in ways that bring disrespect to the EMS profession.

Appropriate and inappropriate uses of retired ambulances

Retired and appropriately converted ambulances can be used various ways. They make a great locksmith vehicle with ample compartments and a beefy suspension to carry the heavy load of key-making devices. A plumber’s life can be made easier using the large ambulance box to carry pipe and the compartments to house tools for the plumbing trade. Retired ambulances can even be used on private campgrounds or other settings where it may make sense to have a vehicle available for bringing medical supplies to remote or difficult to access areas.

Unfortunately, there are times when retired ambulances are used to mock the EMS profession in the name of marketing, or shock factor that mislead the public and our professional image is tarnished. Three years ago, a Fort Worth, Texas entrepreneur acquired an old ambulance for a non-EMS use. The patient compartment of the "Cougar and Kitten Rescue Slambulance" was converted from carrying a stretcher and medical supplies, to accommodating a wet bar and stripper pole, complete with neon lights. It was advertised as available for parties and sporting events. 

Contrary to other re-purposed ambulances, the Slambulance had a Star of Life, red and blue strobe lights, the word "Rescue" on the side and the iconic mirror image "AMBULANCE" on the hood, as well as a Maltese cross on the doors. To the casual observer, it looks like a legitimate ambulance.  

EMS professionals and our local media champions identified two real problems with this repurposed ambulance. First, if the Slambulance passes by a car wreck with injuries, the legitimate EMS agency may have a hard time defending why one of their units did not stop at a call. Or worse yet, if the Slambulance gets flagged down at the scene of a medical emergency, what then? Or, consider this scenario, a 9-1-1 caller sees the Slambulance approaching the scene of a medical call and hangs up and terminates the call request thinking help was already there. 

The second problem is that operating the Slambulance on public roads in Texas is not illegal. There is nothing our law enforcement brethren can do to keep this imposter ambulance off the roads.

Legislation to prohibit imposter ambulances

It is often said, "there outta be a law" and that is exactly what we are trying to accomplish. Concerned EMS organizations found a local champion to sponsor legislation tp correct the public safety threat from vehicles like the Slambulance.

Working together with Texas State Representative Craig Goldman and his staff, a bill was drafted that prohibits the operation of "imposter" ambulances. During the legislative session, the bill was vetted by the relevant committees, we provided testimony, and language was added to prohibit imposter police vehicles as well. All agreed that the law made sense.

As happens with some legislation, in the first session it was introduced, the legislative session ended prior to the full legislature voting on the bill. However, we are confident that when the Texas legislature meets again, the legislation will pass all the hurdles quickly and make it to the floor for a vote.

Texas is not the only state in which imposter ambulances operate. Every state should pass similar legislation to ensure public safety and the integrity of the EMS and law enforcement profession. The language for the legislation is available for anyone to find a champion in their state to enact a similar law against imposter ambulances.

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