Bike Medics Do It Faster

If you’ve been to an outdoor festival or a marathon, you’ve seen the guys standing on the sidelines with overloaded mountain bikes. At first glance you might have thought they were just part of the crowd, but their matching uniforms and EMS embroidery tells a different story: they’re Bike Medics.

Paramedics of the Norfolk Fire Department stand next to their EMS bikes at Harbor Fest 2016.
Paramedics of the Norfolk, Virginia Fire Department stand next to their EMS bikes at Harbor Fest 2016.

Surely in the Twenty First Century internal combustion is the answer to everything, but hundreds of ambulance services across the country and world have found that even a bicycle weighing fifty pounds is faster than a two ton truck when navigating through big crowds and congested city streets. And its not a new idea, either. Bicycle infantry battalions were all the rage leading up to The Great War, and they played a decisive, if largely forgotten, role in the Japanese invasion of The Philippines. Soldiers on bikes inevitably spawned the need for medics on bikes.

In a pre-Great War exercise better suited to the parade ground than the battlefield, a stretcher is suspended between three individual bicycles.
In a pre-Great War exercise better suited to the parade ground than the battlefield, a stretcher
is suspended between three individual bicycles. Note the contraceptive head bandage.

While the original bike medics were more akin to pedal-powered ambulances, today’s bike medics focus on Basic Life Support, or BLS. Their job is to keep airways unobstructed, keep patients breathing, and keep the blood circulating. They are the first responders, who stabilize an injured person for long enough that a bigger ambulance can arrive and transport them to more advanced care. Their tottering packs may be equipped with antiseptic cleansers, bandages, basic drugs, a defibrillator, oxygen, pulse and blood pressure monitors, mask resuscitators, and of course, rubber gloves.

The ubiquitous bike cops in contemporary cities trace their roots to the Seattle Police Departments 1987 founding of a mountain bike-based patrol, but the Indianapolis Fire Department actually beat them to the punch. Three years prior, in 1984, they purchased bikes for medical response.

As any Boy Scout can tell you, it is the first few minutes that are most critical in a medical emergency. Impaired breathing, unchecked bleeding and circulation failure quickly lead to shock, brain damage and death. It is in these first few minutes that paramedics on bikes have an upper hand over traditional ambulances in crowded, congested areas. The Los Angeles Fire Department maintains a full-time bike medic team at the L.A. International Airport, which routinely responds to emergencies within two minutes, while ambulances can take up to fifteen minutes to respond in L.A.’s notorious gridlock. In crowds of thousands of people, bicycles can navigate quickly and without imperiling the general public.

A Cycle Responder of the London Ambulance Service at work.
A Cycle Responder of the London Ambulance Service at work.

The British National Health Service, while slower to adopt bicycles than their American counterparts, has done so with a cost-cutting vigor that only a single-payer system can implement. The London Ambulance Service’s “Cycle Responders” were at the forefront of the 2012 Olympics, and a permanent, full-time bike team is stationed in the heart of the city, the Square Mile. The NHS estimates that in one year alone London’s cycle responders saved 100,000 (US$160,000) compared to using ambulances alone. And only 4,000 of that was in fuel savings.

Understanding the cost benefits of bicycles, the NHS has not been reluctant to equip their teams with gear that would make even the most diehard gear-head drool: fat tires, disc brakes, suspension forks, aluminum frames, front and rear panniers, bells, sirens, strobe lights and fenders are all standard issue. A fully equipped British medic’s bike can cost over 6,000 (US$10,000).

American medic bikes tend to be more basic, reflecting the part-time nature of most teams. The paramedics deployed by the Norfolk Fire Department to the fortieth annual Harbor Fest in Norfolk, Virginia last weekend typified the American approach. They only deploy a few times per year to large events, “whenever the streets are going to be too crowded for us to provide our normal level service.” Given that they rarely ride, but mostly stand on the sidelines, their unit’s equipment is a mixture of hand-me-down police bikes and low-end bikes that “serious” cyclists would sneer at; the Smith & Wesson sticker on the 1980s rigid steel frame is just an add-on. The flimsy cantilever brakes and cheap kickstand would be at home on any Walmart mountain bike. The panniers piled high and heavy on the back of their bikes won’t make for particularly nimble riding, but suit the needs of a mostly stationary crew.

As with any innovation, the true American seal of acceptance is when a buck can be made off of it: Across the country private ambulance service, such as Medics on the Ball, now offer bike medic teams for sporting events, concerts, festivals and movie production sets.

Even though most American bike medics may only be part time bicyclists who don’t ride in the off-time, “I hadn’t ridden a bike in twenty years before I signed up for these bonus shifts,” said one NFD paramedic, they are still at the forefront of utility cycling. They demonstrate to an increasingly lethargic public that automobiles are not the only way to get there. And in fact, bike medics can do it faster.

Wesley Cheney is married to a midwife in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes, builds bamboo bikes at 757 Makerspace and reposts The Onion on Facebook.

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