12 July, 2006

48.Essential public services – Venetian style

This boat looks like it's carrying an advertisement for a toilet cleanser. Or perhaps a brand of tampons. Or, the two men driving it in protective clothing could be sewerage inspectors working for some state-run waste-disposal department.

In fact, Sanitrans is a large European private health-related transport company, the two men are paramedics, and this boat is the Venetian equivalent of an ambulance. Elsewhere in Europe, Sanitrans runs conventional fleets of light truck type ambulances, but here in Venice, the ambulances are all boats. Shortly after taking this picture, I watched this boat slowly chug down this street and pull up at some canalside steps so that the ambulance men could help an elderly passenger in a wheelchair down into their vehicle, and off they went.

Venice demands some ingenuity from all the organizations providing public services like transport for the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped. The lack of roads or any kind of motorized land vehicles, not even scooters – an impossible thought in any other Italian city – presents some unique challenges.

For instance, a firefighting boat might not have any difficulty finding a source of water, but the pumps and hoses could be some way from the fire down winding backstreets, and how would you get an extension ladder up to elevate a hose or to rescue someone stranded on a roof? A boat would almost never get close enough nor would it provide a stable platform for a big ladder even if it was right next to the flaming building. And even if you pushed the ladder there on a hand trolley, quickly maneuvering a long and awkward device such as that through back alleys and up and down over stepped bridges without knocking out decorative street lamps and without chipping lumps off 16th century balconies would be no mean feat.

And the police would have to be fit enough and fast enough to chase their quarry down on foot. Yes, they have speedboats, and I'm sure these are very effective if your criminals are letting themselves be chased up and down the Grand Canal. But it doesn't matter how big your siren is, can you imagine a high speed pursuit down two-way side 'roads' like the one this ambulance is on without bouncing off the parked boats on each side?

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