The idea of the term “ambulance” in Australia was first conjured in 1883 when St John Ambulance Association was established in Victoria. Other states later followed, including Queensland, founding the Brisbane branch of the Order of St John in 1889. By May of that year, St John would begin teaching first aid classes to the public from the Ann Street School of Arts, and continue the tradition through the years still doing so today in various establishments state-wide. Training in the St John classes prompted a small group of “graduates” to use their training for the good of others and formed the first Brisbane based City Ambulance Transport Brigade (CATB) in 1892. Equipment and training was limited, with the first true “ambulance” being an Ashford Litter (featured image) requiring the men to push the litter by hand. The men were soon termed “ambulance bearers” and sought new ways to manoeuvre the litter including the use of horses.

The idea soon grew and by 1902 the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade (QATB) had formed, and taken off into other areas of Queensland. In 1908-09 the QATB took ownership of a Canadian built Talbot (pictured), known to be the first motorised vehicle in the fleet of equipment for the early organisation.

Various modes of ambulance transportation would be designed over many years, as technology improved and new ideas would grow. Around the same time other Australian states were seeing a similar response to the earlier pioneers of St John, with ambulance services prospering throughout the country. Some early modes of transport are shown below:

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As each Transport Brigade across Queensland was established, fundraising became a major factor for those brigades with adequate resources, new vehicles and uniforms, and those still utilising horse drawn stretchers. It was around this time that the more financial metropolitan Ambulance Transport Brigades began to fund new vehicles, which saw the ambulance service as it was known to rapidly change. The service though, still remained largely first aid and transport to a hospital. Unlike other states, St John in Queensland lost the bid to continue the public ambulance service and instead the QATB was successful in tendering to provide the state based service which is well-known today. After this success, and provision of funding to the QATB, their equipment, resources and uniforms were soon the symbol of times to come, as the “ambulance bearers” worked to provide a timely means for which the community could get access to early pre-hospital care. This evolution of QATB is shown in pictures below:

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In 1993 the QATB dissolved and became the Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) as it is known today, and with these changes the level of care also had an overhaul. No longer would “ambulance bearers” simply transport patients, but an entire pre-hospital realm of care would begin, and the service began to train paramedics, and not first aiders. Equipment would include basic medications, oxygen and life saving equipment which filled the newly designed ambulance vehicles. New vehicles with livery (stickers and lights) hit the streets with the newly formed “QAS”. See some below:

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Many other vehicles have existed throughout the history of the ambulance service, and not all have been shown here. With the changes to roles and the expected level of care also came a need for increased training. QAS implemented a student paramedic diploma based program which would see student paramedics employed whilst training toward a Diploma of Paramedic Science. This scheme was abolished in 2013 in favour of a university based program which now sees students self fund a Bachelor of Paramedic Science, and then seek employment as a Graduate Paramedic with the QAS. An internship follows before the graduates are issued with a qualification to practice as Advanced Care Paramedics. With the increase in technology there is also several tiers of pre-hospital care now, including Critical Care, whereby Critical Care Paramedics are employed following a Postgraduate Diploma of Critical Care or Masters in Paramedic Science.

The pre-hospital arena is fast evolving and as new technologies come out of the hospitals into the community, it will only continue to evolve. What a fantastic career to be embarking on! I am proud to be a paramedic for the Queensland Ambulance Service, and look forward to many more years to come!

This is my abridged version of the origins of QAS. To further explore the history of ambulance in Queensland there are several locations you can visit.


Australian Workers Heritage Centre

Ash Street, Barcaldine Qld 4725
Phone:  (07) 4651 1579

Open: Mon – Sat: 9am –  5pm
Sunday: 10am – 4pm

Entry Fee: Adult = $17.00
Concession / Student 15+ = $14.00
Child /student – 6 to 15 yrs = $10.00 (under 6 yrs free)
Children under 6 years (accompanied by adult) = Free
Family ‘A’ = $42.00 (2 Adults & 2 Children)
Family ‘B’ = $45.00 (2 Adults & 2+ Children)

Charters Towers Historic Ambulance Centre

157 Gill Street, Charters Towers Qld 4820
Contact: Charter Towers Local Ambulance Committee
Phone: (07) 4787 1478

Open: Sunday from 9am – 12pm

The museum isn’t always open, so calling in advance is recommended. Admission is gold coin donation.

Wynnum Queensland Ambulance Museums

33-35 Tingal Road, Wynnum Qld 4178
Contact: Wynnum Local Ambulance Committee
Phone:  0407 117 916

The museum is open by appointment only, so calling in advance is recommended. Admission is free.

Ambulance Week

Me on the right and fellow Advanced Care Paramedic Matt Bolton at Northern Beaches Station, Townsville, Qld.
Me on the right and fellow Advanced Care Paramedic Matt Bolton at Northern Beaches Station, Townsville, Qld.

Ambulance Week is a time when Paramedics, volunteers and dispatchers are recognised for their achievements in the workplace and the community. It is a time when stations open their doors to let the community in, and break down barriers. It is currently Ambulance Week at the time of writing this, and we have just had our stations Open Day. If you get a chance to attend one of these, it is a great day to meet your local paramedics and show support for what they do!

AXEL the Ambulance took children for a ride

If you like it, you should pin it!

A History of the Queensland Ambulance Serivce & Museums

Sources: Queensland Ambulance Service, St John Ambulance Qld, Peter O’Meara & Carol Grbich “Paramedics in Australia“, Historic Commercial Vehicle Club of Australia


16 Replies to “No Ordinary Job: The History of Queensland’s Ambulance Service”

  1. What an interesting article. Fortunately, I’ve never had much contact with the ambulance service when I was in Queensland. Happy travels x

    1. That is fantastic to know! It is not really in ones best interest to want to have contact with the ambulance service haha.. At least you know if you did, you would be in good hands!
      Safe travels 😀

  2. This is fantastic, full of history! I did a big Queensland Outback road trip where I first heard and read about the ambulance service in Barcaldine. It’s amazing how much the equipment etc has come since 1902. And I’m loving the look of those retro 1993 ambulances!

  3. Hi Nick, The information on the site is great! My experience with QLD QATB was in the eighties when the service was only subsidised ‘dollar for dollar’ from the State Govt. This meant that the population in the Centres service area were asked to ‘subscribe’ to the service to avoid a full fee if they used the service. The charge was about $20 a year when treatment and a transport could cost approx. $500+. The ‘poorer’ centres used to regularly perform fund raising while on duty to raise funds that would then be matched by the Govt & used to run the service. Areas such as the Gold Coast were fortunate in that it had a concentrated of an affluent population, whereas country centres had vast areas to cover with a sparse population & had much tougher going to find enough money to operate. The way you became an Ambulance Officer (AO) was to complete a First Aid Course & you could then become an ‘Honorary’ Ambulance Officer. This was voluntary work involving one night per week 7-10pm & one day shift per month. You would be an extra person sent out on any job from medical transport to a traffic accident or collapse. This gave me a great deal of experience & you certainly became aware of what the job involved. The best way, at the time, to become a full time officer was to ‘Go out west’ & apply for a regional centre job. I met one regional officer being called out to a traffic accident one hour away on a remote highways out of radio contact where he had to deal with 9 patients, 4 unconscious & no option to call for help. I kept applying to my centre and area but honorarys’ are expected to do some time in remote areas due to the difficulty getting officers to stay out there. The service was about to change to the model it is today, a Govt funded service with a fairer financial system to run the centres in a standardised manner. Anyway, I thought I’d let you know what things were like in the ’80s. Cheers Peter

    1. Hi Peter, not just the ’80s believe it or not! They still have similar officers around now in those small regional towns, in areas that haven’t quite picked up the “first responder” name yet. I started as an honorary in 2007, but mostly just acted as an emergency driver and did so under my auxiliary firefighter title. In regional areas, that “can’t get them to stay” thing still exists, in fact to get people to stay long term they now offer family accommodation etc as incentives.. I still remember going with my mother to pay the ambulance fee at the station in Toowoomba in the 90’s before the system changed, although I recall that fee being more like $90/year. Thanks for your insight! Nick
      Nick recently posted…Defend the Defender; the tall ship rotting away in North QueenslandMy Profile

      1. Toowoomba! that was the ‘Big Smoke’, the officer I spoke to was talking about an accident west of Dalby. Just down the road!

        1. I’m a Dalby boy, moved to Toowoomba shortly after I was born. I have a feeling the gentleman you speak of is one of many written about in a book I have as part of our peer support program, it’s titled “Finding the Silver Lining; Stress, Resilience and Growth in Ambulance Practice” the story in it describes that accident to a tee!

          1. Hi Again Nick, I’ve had a look where I can get access to the book you mentioned but no luck. Can you advise where I could get a copy or access online? Thanks Peter

  4. Hi Nick, WOW!! that’s amazing, I grew up as a small kid in Dalby & moved to Brisbane when I was about 7 years old & we always regularly visited rellies in Dalby & Toowoomba as I grew up. So as I went to visit later as a Volunteer Ambo, I would visit the West QLD centres to see what the job was like for them. I was amazed at the resilience of the Ambos & the differences between a ‘City’ centre & a ‘Regional’ centre. Although I also attended the types of jobs that all Full Time Ambos attend, I was fortunate enough to be an extra person to observe & help under direction at the time. I’m sure all Ambos understand the great work they do as a job and the satisfaction that comes with it. For me though, I wasn’t prepared to join under the system that existed at the time. Recently a friend dislocated her ankle & the Ambos came & injected morphine for the pain. I remember the most potent medicine in the Ambulance was Sal Butamol ! I wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying around any drug that might make me a target of people addicted to drugs. Maybe I’m getting old but I remember when you could park your Ambulance at an accident scene & leave the keys in it & the engine running to power the lights and no-one would search it for drugs or steal it !! : )

    1. Hey Peter, the book is a service issue and I’ve looked too, I don’t know that it’s available to the public, they do have copies of it at the state library though, or any ambulance station I reckon will have it in their collections. Small world it is! The practice is certainly changing dramatically, with Paramedic Registration just around the corner, our skill sets are ever evolving. Our vehicles have idle hold now, so we can keep it running but lock it too! 🙂
      Nick recently posted…Defend the Defender; the tall ship rotting away in North QueenslandMy Profile

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