You are here:

Urgent and emergency care services in England

NHS ambulance services

Ambulance services help many people with serious or life-threatening conditions. They also provide a range of other urgent and planned healthcare and transport services.

Ambulance services should ensure that patients are given the appropriate level of care.

Who will treat you?

Depending on the situation the ambulance service can dispatch the following units:

  • an ambulance
  • a rapid response vehicle (car, motorbike or bicycle)
  • a doctor
  • an air ambulance
  • a patient transport service (PTS)
  • a community first responder (CFR) and volunteers
  • a combination of the above

Ambulance crews
Ambulance crews can include a range of medical staff, such as emergency care assistants and paramedics. Crews are highly trained in all aspects of emergency care, from trauma injuries to cardiac arrests. An ambulance is equipped with a variety of emergency care equipment, such as heart defibrillators, oxygen, intravenous drips, spinal and traction splints, and a range of drugs.

Patients will always be taken to hospital when there is a medical need for this. However, paramedics now carry out more diagnostic tests and do basic procedures at the scene. Many crews also refer patients to social care services, and directly admit patients to specialist units such as major trauma centres or stroke units. Paramedics also administer a wide range of drugs to deal with conditions such as diabetes, asthma, allergic reactions, overdoses, and heart failure.

A rapid response vehicle (car, motorbike or bicycle)
These units are often sent ahead of an ambulance as they are quicker at getting through traffic or large pedestrian areas. This is important in situations where every second counts.

Air ambulance
Air ambulances deliver emergency care, especially in rural areas and where road access is a problem. They can be an effective way of getting better and faster access to hospitals and are valuable in transferring patients between hospitals and are dispatched by NHS ambulance services where there is a need. All air ambulances operate as independent charities. However, the cost of some clinical staff on air ambulances has been met by the NHS.

Community First Responders (CFRs) and volunteers
Many local ambulance services run volunteer responder schemes. Volunteers receive medical training and are expected to provide emergency care alongside ambulances or until an ambulance can be on site. They are often trained to use defibrillators, provide CPR and are able to give oxygen treatment. The volunteers have to provide their own cars and usually don't have blue lights. 

Non-emergency patient transport services (PTS)
If you have a hospital appointment you usually need to make your own transport arrangements. However, under certain circumstances a Non-emergency patient transport service (PTS) can be arranged. Transport can and should encompass a wide range of vehicle types and levels of care consistent with the patients' medical needs.

PTS services are commissioned by Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and it remains up to local CCGs to decide how these services are managed. To find out if you are eligible for PTS speak with your GP, your hospital team or contact your local CCG.

Handling 999 calls

Any 999 call to an ambulance service is prioritised into two categories to ensure life-threatening cases receive the quickest response:

1. Immediately life threatening

A. Red 1: 75% of Category A Red 1 calls (the most time critical, where patients are not breathing or do not have a pulse) to be responded to within 8 minutes

B. Red 2: 75% of Category A Red 2 calls (still serious, but less immediately time critical, like strokes or fits) to be responded to within 8 minutes. The clock starts ticking up to 60 seconds after the clock for Red 1.

C. A19: 95% of Category A calls to be responded to within 19 minutes.

2. All other calls – For conditions that are not life threatening, response targets are set locally

Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) show that in 2013/14 ambulance trusts dealt with an average of 16.1 emergency calls per minute. You can find the full report about ambulance services in England on HSCIC's website.


The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Carolgoldie46 said on 31 October 2015

Had to call an ambulance today to Knebworth Golf Club for a normally very fit lady in excruciating pain and unable to walk or get into a car.
Intially fobbed off and then after questioning the patient and one of our first aiders agreed to sent an ambulance
We waited 2 hours from initial call and half an hour after they agreed it was a blues and twos job.
The ambulance staff were great when they arrived. It's not them but the system that I am complaining about.
Do they think two first aiders call an ambulance if not needed. We had 20 cars available if we could have got her into one and we are only a few minutes from the Lister hospital
I have sent this because I looked on your site and worse case scenario is non urgent cases 19 minutes you really let us down.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Krissy2000 said on 08 April 2015

I'm 6 months pregnant and on the way to a client meeting I found myself not being able to walk so crawled onto some steps and called 111. Considering I was not bleeding and not visibly losing my baby, I was not sent an emergency ambulance. The person on the phone told me they would send a non emergency ambulance but could not give me a time frame.

3 hours passed and I was still sitting in the cold waiting for this ambulance as I could not walk or get to warmth. Eventually a taxi driver carried me into his vehicle. I still haven't received a call to ask me where I am and if I'm okay, 5 hours on who knows if it's actually been dispatched?

It's a shame and very sad that the NHS do not believe a 6 month pregnant lady in need of medical care deserves any kind of priority. I still can't walk but chances are - my GP won't care and the last time I went to a&e a cleaner stole £70 from my handbag and the hospital didn't care at all. Good Luck to the nation!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Brian Best said on 18 January 2015

I just wanted to say big thank you to the fanastic crew that came out to my asthmatic wife very early on a snowy saturday morning she woke breathless after using her inhalers she found she needed the nebuliser, this didnt work either, I dialed 999 and the operater was brilliant he stayed with me on the phone until the crew got there. The crew arrived and immediately took over They acted totally professional. When she arrived at the hospital she was treated by the staff there equally in a professional manner, quickly and in my opinion life saving. The doctor and t stafnrses were brillant. I work at the hospital, but never ever thought I would need them A BigThank you A/E You were great. Thank colleagues

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Dave_W_123 said on 18 November 2014

I struggle to understand what warrants a 999 call these days. My partner last night developed agonising pain in his abdomen and after this got worse I called 999. At this point no one including your no medical call centre staff know what the problem is all I know is that my partner is seriously unwell and needs medical help. To be told that screaming agony of unknown origin doesn't warrant an emergency ambulance beggers belief! Do you have to be in the verge of death and probably not going to make it before one is sent?
The situation with the whole NHS is in crises but I thought this one service I could reliy on if needed, clearly not and discusted that my partners fait lay in the hands if a non medical person with a check sheet! How awful and how many more people are in this situation everyday.
After an agonising journey to A & E, and don't even get me started on that experience, , having to crawl in on hands and knees, waiting 39 minutes for an essesment, another 45 to actually be give some pain partner is undergoing emergency operation to remove a ruptured appendix.Clearly needed an ambulance, clearly has been failed in his time of need.
I don't dispute that when the emergency services get it right then Heroes they are but this experience has frightened me to death that if you don't get it quite right with the answers you give on the 999 call you may well in some cases die and this is thevery real truth if the matter. Outraged!!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Cfran said on 09 May 2014

I had my first experience of the ambulance service on Easter Sunday! I had been feeling unwell all day and at later in the evening began with strong chest pains. We called the ambulance and they arrived in around 10 minutes and checked everything. They were friendly, kind and polite- I was on the verge of a panic attack and they helped me calm down. The end result was to see an out of hours doctor who too was brilliant. On this occasion, I couldn't fault the NHS and am grateful for their help.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Peterpan39 said on 25 April 2014

This morning (25/04/2014) I collapsed in a shop in the centre of Birmingham (Evans Cycles). I don't remember much; but the paramedics were there very quickly - in around 10 minutes. I was treated with the utmost respect, kindness and professionalism. When it was found that I was fine to go home after a thorough check the paramedics waited patiently with me until my parents came to pick me up. Thank you so much for your kindness patience and excellent service!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Davenettl said on 26 December 2013

Shocking service. Try phoning on the number you've been given for a start

Try reading or having access to patients medical records services before you phone.

Try knowing what you're talking about before you call.

Try not to patronise people!

When you're asked if you know what a condition is please don't lie and say you do and know about it. We know you're lying and don't have a clue!

In all, a truly shocking service, that's meant to be world leading, as we've been accustomed to for many years now!

Disgusted really doesn't come close to it! Happens every time though!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

woojharry said on 13 December 2013

I phoned an ambulance for a colleague who had all the symptoms of a stroke. Symptoms subsided slightly over the next half hour....ambulance didn't arrive for over 90 minutes. I'm furious. We needed you and you didn't come.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

tawam said on 02 December 2013

Just called the ambulance today because my two year old bumped his forehead. He was bleeding very badly from a deep cut and seemed dizzy. Waited for the ambulance half an hour,they didn't come so rang them back. Another Half an hour later no Ambulance! Luckily my husband arrived home so he toke my son to the children's hospital instead of waiting. Shame the ambulance couldn't manage to came for over an hour...

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Page last reviewed: 14/09/2015

Next review due: 14/09/2017

What to do? Dialing 999

Get advice on first aid and when to dial 999, including what information to pass on to emergency response units

The Cycle Response Unit

The bicycle ambulance

Find out about the Cycle Response Unit, trained paramedics who attend emergency calls on their bikes

They went to A&E for what?

Watch this series of videos featuring real-life examples of the silliest reasons why people visit A&E