About 20 years ago, students tudying to be paramedics at Anne Arundel Community College practiced in the back of an old ambulance at the nearest fire department. Instructors removed the rear doors so they could watch.
As ambulances became more expensive, fire departments were less likely to take the vehicles off the street for such use. Until last fall, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department gave students a 20-minute presentation on an ambulance before returning it to duty.
For many students that was their only exposure to an ambulance before they went out on emergency calls, said Michael O'Connell Jr., an adjunct faculty member and commander of the training division for the county fire department.
The community college has made its program more realistic by installing a $25,000 ambulance simulator. The permanent fixture allows students to get comfortable loading and unloading patients, using equipment and being in an emergency vehicle.
"This is a much more economical and affordable way of doing it," O'Connell said. "Ambulances are a valuable commodity."
Students in advanced emergency management classes got a chance to see the simulator during an open house this month.
T.J. Hill, 26, a student and a firefighter for Naval District Washington Fire Department, said the simulator's space is larger than in the old ambulances.
"The only thing that would be better is if it bounced around," said Hill, who is finishing up a class to become an intermediate emergency medical technician.
The college could not get a simulator that would rock back and forth because it would be too heavy for the fourth floor of the Florestano Building, which houses the simulator, said Claire Smith, dean of the school of health professions, wellness and physical education.
The college began its paramedic program in 1979, offering certificates and associate's degrees. The program typically has an enrollment of 75 students.
The courses include EMT basic, EMT intermediate and paramedic. During each, students must spend 120 hours in clinical practice in a hospital. After the paramedic course, students must spend the summer on an ambulance team. They can earn a certificate or an associate's degree.
The college received a federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education grant to pay for the simulator, which looks like a rectangular box emerging from the wall. Because one of the sides is removed, instructors can see a cross-section of the ambulance and watch students work on lifelike mannequins. Video cameras allow instructors to watch what is happening from different angles without getting in the way.
"It's nice to have instructions from teachers without them being on top of you," said Joseph Fowler, who is finishing the EMT basic course this month.
Fowler, 20, of Pasadena said he is glad he was able to practice loading fellow students into the simulator this semester. The experience of maneuvering a 73-pound stretcher will make it easier when he has to do it for real.
"When they go out to practice, this will not be foreign to them," said Melanie Miller, clinical coordinator of the EMT department at the college.
Universities and colleges are trying to mimic real-life as much as possible in the classroom, Miller said. The college's mannequins can be programmed to respond as a human being would with physical complaints, such as ragged breath sounds. The mannequins are wired to record the students' touch. Instructors can look up the record on the computer to verify whether students are performing the right checks.
Students spend their clinical practice time at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie and St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. With limited space for interns in hospital settings, college programs are doing whatever they can to make their schools stand out, Miller said.
Tracy Ellis, a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital, represented the hospital staff at the open house for the simulator.
"When they go out and get jobs and are really on the street, it's going to help their leadership skills and help them be better prepared," she said.