Our last post was dedicated to bicycle police, and the utility of using the bicycle as a vehicle for patrol and law enforcement. Next up in our now 4-part series dedicated to emergency and patrol cycling services are EMS (emergency medical service) bicycles. Originally, I had identified three categories of emergency and patrol cycling services – police, EMS, and search and rescue – but I am adding a 4th for fire. Header photo credit to Design for Development.
History of EMS Bikes
The history of EMS bikes is a bit more hazy than the history of police bikes. According to A Brief History of EMS Cycling by Maureen Becker, which is available at the IPMBA website, medics who used bicycles may have done so initially as an alternative to walking when they were working at large special events. Nonetheless, much like police bicycle use, medic bicycle use was intermittent throughout the United States for many years. One of the earliest units to purchase bicycles for department use was the Indianapolis Fire Department in approximately 1984, and they had established an official bike team by 1989. However, in the 1990’s, more and more official EMS cycling units began to appear around the United States and in Canada.
For the most part, EMS and medic bike units are used for special events. Bicycles can be more effective in large, crowded spaces, as they are naturally much faster than walking and can also haul a lot of special gear and equipment. Nonetheless, there are a number of more permanent medical bike units around the U.S., most notably a EMS bike team founded in 1995 in Florida to patrol bike trails and the International Drive corridor, and a weekend EMS bike team in Nashville, TN, founded in 1997 in response to a 25 minute ambulance delay to reach a heart attack victim due to large crowds. EMS bike units were also formed to patrol airports, again due to long distances and large crowds. The first airport EMS bike units were founded in 1998 in Eau Claire Airport, Wisconsin, and Vancouver International Airport (British Columbia). The IPMBA (International Police Mountain Bike Association) founded the IPMBA EMS Cyclist Program in 1997 and helps to train EMS cyclists to ride with heavy loads in large crowds, among other things.
EMS Cycling Procedures
Today, EMS Cycling is relatively common, especially for special events, in tourist areas, college campuses, airports, train stations, amusement parks, and other crowded areas that take up a significant geographical area, but which may not be accessible by motorized vehicle in many circumstances. In many cases, when an ambulance cannot reach a patient due to access through crowds or barriers and a person on foot might be too slow, a bicycle medic is the best solution, as the bicycle can haul a significant amount of weight. Additionally, people are more likely to move out of the way of a bicycle, rather than a person, but it is sometimes difficult to get large crowds to make way for a large vehicle like an ambulance.
Photo credit – IMPBA
EMS bikes are usually deployed to an event or location in addition to an ambulance. For example, at a large event, an ambulance will be located somewhere on the premises, in order to transport a victim to a hospital, if necessary. The main purpose of the bicycle unit is to get to a patient as quickly as possible and provide care until the patient can be taken to the ambulance or the ambulance is able to reach the patient.
EMS/ Medic Bicycles
EMS bikes, much like police bikes, are often of the mountain bike variety. EMS bikes are usually equipped with bike racks and bike bags to carry the necessary gear such as ALS (advanced life support), BLS (basic life support), oxygen, communication equipment, warning devices, and more. Some EMS bikes are of the electric bicycle variety, which makes a great deal of sense, as time is usually of the essence in the EMS world, and electric bicycles provide a little bit of assist for medics carrying a lot of gear and covering long distances.
Photo credit – City of New Orleans
In many developing countries, there are not many ambulances or EMS units to start with. In many cases, emergency medical care and transportation is provided by the local community. Much like in the U.S., however, the bicycle can often mean the difference between life and death, and in many places, ambulances bicycles that actually transport patients are becoming more and more common.
One of the most famous bicycle ambulance projects is the Bambulance, which was created by the charity Design for Development Society. The Bambulance is a sustainable vehicle made from locally grown bamboo in Kenya and other African countries. This video shows the process involved in creating the Bambulance.
I will dedicate a full post to the Bambulance and other bicycle ambulances sometime in the future. Next up in our series, fire fighting bikes!