Health Care Management Science

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 517–531 | Cite as

Dynamic ambulance dispatching: is the closest-idle policy always optimal?

  • C. J. JagtenbergEmail author
  • S. Bhulai
  • R. D. van der Mei


We address the problem of ambulance dispatching, in which we must decide which ambulance to send to an incident in real time. In practice, it is commonly believed that the ‘closest idle ambulance’ rule is near-optimal and it is used throughout most literature. In this paper, we present alternatives to the classical closest idle ambulance rule. Most ambulance providers as well as researchers focus on minimizing the fraction of arrivals later than a certain threshold time, and we show that significant improvements can be obtained by our alternative policies. The first alternative is based on a Markov decision problem (MDP), that models more than just the number of idle vehicles, while remaining computationally tractable for reasonably-sized ambulance fleets. Second, we propose a heuristic for ambulance dispatching that can handle regions with large numbers of ambulances. Our main focus is on minimizing the fraction of arrivals later than a certain threshold time, but we show that with a small adaptation our MDP can also be used to minimize the average response time. We evaluate our policies by simulating a large emergency medical services region in the Netherlands. For this region, we show that our heuristic reduces the fraction of late arrivals by 18 % compared to the ‘closest idle’ benchmark policy. A drawback is that this heuristic increases the average response time (for this problem instance with 37 %). Therefore, we do not claim that our heuristic is practically preferable over the closest-idle method. However, our result sheds new light on the popular belief that the closest idle dispatch policy is near-optimal when minimizing the fraction of late arrivals.


OR in health services Ambulances Emergency medical services Dispatching Markov decision processes 



The authors of this paper would like to thank the Dutch Public Ministry of Health (RIVM) for giving access to the travel times for EMS vehicles in the Netherlands. This research was financed in part by Technology Foundation STW under contract 11986, which we gratefully acknowledge.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. J. Jagtenberg
    • 1
    Email author
  • S. Bhulai
    • 1
    • 2
  • R. D. van der Mei
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.CWI, StochasticsAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Faculty of SciencesVU University AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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