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Bike Medics Add New Wrinkle to First Response

Alexandria Life

August 29, 2002

These guys can get to a victim even in a mosh pit. They are the Alexandria Fire Department Bike Medics.

Initiated in 1997, the Alexandria contingent was the first such unit in Northern Virginia, according to Jim Blivin, emergency rescue technician 2, known as a paramedic, who was the moving force behind the idea. "Now we are completely surrounded by such units in all jurisdictions," he said.

"In 1994, Seattle police had just started to use bike patrols. So I took my bike and went out to do an in-depth study of the situation. The main impetus was to try and find out how to provide good emergency health care in very crowded environments," Blivin explained.

His trip started the department's learning and development process. "There are two organizations that have set standards for these types of operations. One is the International Police Mountain Biking Association (IPMBA), and the other is the Jamaica Hospital in Jamaica, N.Y.," he said.

"Finally, in 1997 the department said, 'Go for it.' They gave me $700 to buy special emergency equipment for the bikes, which included a two-monitor defibrillator. That was brand-new technology at the time. But we used our own bikes in the beginning," he said.

Today, there are 15 members of the Bike Medic Squad, and the department has purchased the bikes. There are four bikes available. Two medics are advanced-life-support certified, and two are basic-life-support qualified, the department acknowledged. "All bike medics are volunteers. They do this in addition to their regular duties as firefighters and EMS personnel," said Blivin.

THE PRIMARY USE of the bike medics is in situations where there are dense crowds that make it difficult or impossible to bring in regular emergency vehicles. Two examples of that are the Alexandria Waterfront Festival and the Marine Corps Marathon.

Firefighter/paramedic Mike Chandler, a member of the team, remembers, "We had a cardiac arrest in the early stage the Marine Corps Marathon a couple of years ago. With 20,000 runners in a confined area such as the 14th Street bridge, it's almost impossible to get a vehicle to the patient. That's were we come in."

Bike medics have all the necessary advanced-life-support equipment and medical supplies with them, Chandler noted. "Each of these large events also has Incident Command Centers. After you get to the patient and determine the situation, you can call Incident Command and request a transit unit if necessary," he explained.

In many cases bike medics are supported by transport units. These units usually have golf carts that have been adapted to carry patients to awaiting ambulances or EMS vehicles, according to Chandler.

"We start treatment immediately, and the transport unit takes the patient to the waiting vehicle or aid station," he specified. "It's quite rewarding and challenging."

THAT ELEMENT OF challenge is what got paramedic Bryan Meckes involved. "I wanted to try something different. It was also a chance to get some good exercise while doing something I really like," he said.

"The challenges are more physical because its our own legs making the response call. But the medical portion is the same as with an EMS vehicle. Sometimes when we get a call about a person having breathing difficulty, we are breathing as hard as the patient by the time we reach them," Meckes revealed.

Bike medics have been particularly vital at the Alexandria Waterfront Festival. They can maneuver within the crowd to get to a critical situation that would be impossible for an EMS vehicle.

"Several years ago we were treating a cardiac patient at the festival when a severe electrical storm blew up very suddenly," Blivin related. "We were faced with getting all these people to covered safety while also getting the patient to a medical unit."

After getting virtually hundreds of people into a covered garage, the team was faced with treating some of them for breathing problems, anxiety attacks and other maladies, according to Blivin.

"But our saddle bags are fully equipped with all first-line drugs, IV supplies, oxygen, bandages and splints, as well as a defibrillator," he assured.

AS FIRST-RESPONSE specialists, bike medics are able to reach patients quickly. "We can get to them in under a minute and are prepared to treat them for 10 to 20 minutes prior to their being transported to a medical facility. We've had as many as eight patients under the care of one bike medic at one time," Blivin noted.

Mountain bikes are the vehicle of choice for the teams, which usually work as a duo. These bikes were chosen because their tires and wheels are more suited to rough terrain and hard riding. In addition to the medical supplies and equipment, each bike is fitted with state-of-the-art lighting and flashers.

In addition to their medical expertise and fast response in tight situations, the bike medics also serve as community outreach for the department. "One of the biggest benefits is that people talk to us and ask a lot of questions about the department and the city in general," Blivin acknowledged.

Originally from New York City, Blivin lives in Woodbridge. Before becoming an Alexandria Fire Department paramedic in 1989, he was a volunteer firefighter. He also conducts EMS training for the department as well as specialized training for the bike medics.

"I am certified in police biking, but EMS bikes carry a lot more equipment, and the overall training is quite different. There is a list of skills that I want to be able to do based on the IPMBA model. All the training is focused on how to get through a very dense crowd safely and effectively," he said.

Some of those skills include slow riding under control, taking a minimum of 12 seconds to ride a fully equipped bike from one end to the other of a regular-size parking space, maneuvering up and down stairs, and skid and stopping control.

When the Pentagon was hit on Sept. 11, Blivin was conducting a bike medic training session. "When we headed out for the Pentagon, we put bikes on the ambulances in case we needed them to get through traffic jams," he recalled.

But it's not all critical, high-intensity duty. "We are the first contact in many instances at big crowd events. And that applies to finding a lot of lost kids for parents - or vice versa," Blivin said.