If you’re anything like the typical L.A. driver, you may not notice them at first glance. But look around carefully at any packed, city-sanctioned celebratory parade, outdoor Hollywood concert, convention, or other sizable event and you just might make out a Los Angeles Fire Department team of bike medics poised at the edge of their seats. They are stationed in designated places prepared not only to perform a heroic service, but one that is likely to draw quite the crowd. These LAFD bike medics make the difference between life and death.
“On January 29 they were able to get on scene at LAX in three minutes to treat a seizure patient that was at first combative in the baggage claim. Using a spit hood to stop and restrain they stabilized the patient until an ambulance arrived. It took an ambulance 45 minutes to arrive,” says Captain Chad Rolish, Emergency Medical Services Bureau Special Operations Unit Commander. This stark difference in response time shows the importance of the unit.
Led by Captain Rolish, these two-wheeled first responders are a specialized group with at least 110 Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and paramedic firefighters trained to take to the streets. Adept at cruising through the busiest areas, they access spaces that are impassable by larger vehicles in an emergency. They also make rounds and report incidents as a “still alarm” from the crowd’s vantage point.
Captain Rolish explains at an event such as the Los Angeles Marathon, “There were up to 30 bike medics placed throughout the route.” He estimates medics ride a couple loops along the 26.2 mile route from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica; the equivalent of 40-50 miles. The EMT cyclists are dispatched in pairs and at least one of the riders always is a paramedic.
Being part of this unique team requires extensive bike mobility training. LAFD Captain and EMT Robert Dunivin, a 14-year bike medic and one of the five men who started on the team says, “There’s a hands-on, 40-hour course covering bike maintenance in addition to basic bike course training. From there you learn the nomenclature, how to load bikes, review scene safety, and acquire valuable knowledge for cycling on roadways.” Once certified, bike medics are eligible to join and utilize resources from the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). He also belongs to the association’s EMS cycling instructor cadre.
Firefighter Paramedic Alex Gormé, a bike medic and EMS cycling instructor, explains that in the field, “We use a firetruck as a home base or unified command post with the LAPD. The bike medics can then ride back and forth using their radios to locate each other when dispatched in an area. If they need to report a still alarm, they can notify the base from their current location and respond right away.”
The bikes are equipped with bags of medical supplies which can weigh up to 50 pounds. The bags contain everything needed for basic life support, and for paramedics, supplies for a more advanced level of support. This portability is crucial as venues range from large to small and the path to the emergency may take them through crowded areas both outdoors and indoors.
The bikes also vary by size and type of tire. The widest tires are best suited for places such as Venice Beach, allowing medics to cross natural terrain. A motorized medical cart also may be used to transport patients to a waiting ambulance.
Captain Dunivin notes one of the biggest challenges is maneuvering in crowds. There are ways that the public can help out when they see lights or hear the bike sirens approaching. “Give space to medics. Move to the side to give them room to work,” he says.
“We usually have at least a week’s notice before a deployment.” Captain Rolish explains, which allows them to prepare. But that’s not always the case. “Sometimes there is shorter notice for the more last-minute events such as a march or protest.” Anticipating crowd size isn’t an exact science. He says, “For one in Downtown L.A. a few weeks ago we had 12 cyclists to cover a crowd of 750,000!”
Over the course of a month the LAFD bike medics will spend about 10 days assigned to trucks and 20 days assigned to bike reserves. Captain Dunivin says “A captain may move medics from trucks to bikes as needed, as well as serve as a bike medic.” Between the option of pursuing the big promotion or continuing to serve in this area he noted, “I’m looking to make bike medics a possible full-time opportunity.”
Alex says he knew early on this work was the right fit. “Growing up I had some personal interactions with EMTs responding to calls at my family’s home. Later, I jumped on an opportunity to be sponsored to attend a weeklong academy with the California Fire Explorer Association (CFEA). That provided the inspiration I needed to pursue this as a career.” After 12 years as a bike medic, he clearly enjoys his role. What’s the best part? “I love the ride,” he says with a smile.
By Madeline Wright