EMS Cycle Units to the Rescue

Could two-wheelers improve Philadelphia's emergency care?

In May, Medical News Today posted an article praising the life- and money-saving benefits of London’s Cycle Response Unit, a team of 100 bike medics who answer emergency calls in the city’s heavy traffic and pedestrian zones where ambulances can’t easily navigate, like shopping malls. Since it was established 10 years ago, the unit, which carries all the same equipment as an ambulance except a stretcher, has treated 50,000 patients and saved £300,000 ($482,500) in fuel costs.

Seeing how Philly has become one of the nation’s most bike-friendly towns, I wondered if a similar program could work here. According to the Office of the Controller’s 2007 report on Emergency Medical Services, “the ability of [Fire Department] ambulances to arrive at medical emergencies within [the widely-held benchmark of 8 minutes 59 seconds fell to] 60 percent of total emergency runs in fiscal 2006.” This is due mostly to a rising demand for EMS services (up 30 percent from 1999 to 2006) and too few available vehicles.

While the Fire Department does have its own cycle responders, they stick mostly to covering large outdoor events, and not answering 911 calls. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University have similar, student-run teams to complement the PFD, but neither operate at a full-scale level. UPenn’s Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) answers calls only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. during the academic year. The Temple EMS Bike Team is in action from 7:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday nights. Both units administer pre-hospital care and/or ensure an ambulance is called. But their average response time was about five minutes—half the time it takes most ambulances to reach the scene.

If we expand the PFD EMS bike team and prioritize calls so cyclists answer all calls requiring only basic life support and not immediate hospital transport, we could liberate dozens of vehicles a day for patients that need the ER, stat. In London, bike EMTs free up 5,000 ambulance hours per year. That means patients like cardiac arrest victims who don’t have a minute to spare aren’t stuck waiting around for help.

Especially in and around Center City, where traffic congests the streets, bike medics can use our brand-new bike lanes and navigate down narrow lanes to reach patients faster than ever. Not only will this save lives, but it will save some cash by increasing the efficiency of our emergency system. Plus it’s better for the environment. It’s a win-win-win. – Kathryn Siegel