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Cycle Response Unit

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The bicycle ambulance

While we are all familiar with the sight and sound of an ambulance, a paramedic on a bicycle is a novelty.

 The story behind what is officially known as the Cycle Response Unit tells how one man’s vision has resulted in a team of 60 staff in London.

Tom Lynch remembers the day that he first decided to become a paramedic. “When I was a young boy at school I had a nasty accident. There was panic, but I can remember the ambulance crew bringing calm to the situation.” From that moment, he had found his calling.

But his skill as a competitive cyclist took Lynch in quite another direction at first. From the age of 11, he toured the world as a British and European BMX champion.

At 22, after another bad accident, Lynch joined the ambulance service. By 1993, he was working on the front line at Waterloo’s busy ambulance station in London. It was while responding to an emergency call-out and sitting in heavy traffic that the idea of combining his two passions came to him.

“I thought, ‘I could do this quicker on my bike’,” he says. “When I got back to the station and started talking about it, everyone just laughed at me, but I knew I could do the job on my bike because of my previous history. In 2000 I got the go-ahead for an official trial.”

 The results of the trial showed that Lynch was right and he could get to patients in built-up or pedestrianised areas more quickly. In addition, a cycle responder could tackle many emergencies alone and avoid the need for an ambulance.

“We worked out that we can save 250 hours of ambulance availability time in a six-month period,” says Lynch. “That was great for me, to know that I was able to give Londoners back fully equipped ambulances.”

The unit is not only improving efficiency. Lynch feels that it gives the cycling paramedics a valuable opportunity to meet the public. He calls it “community ambulancing”. Lynch says: “If you think about it, no-one really gets to have any contact with ambulance personnel, so this has given the service a face. It’s brought it alive and given it a presence in the community. We’ve never had that before.”

The cycle responders, who are made up of both paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), attend a range of incidents, from simple trips or falls to more serious situations such as drug overdoses or cardiac arrests. “We carry defibrillators and, on a few occasions, we have restarted somebody’s heart.

“And, because we got there faster, the person has been able to leave hospital and go back to work sooner than they would have done otherwise.”

If the decision is made to cancel an ambulance, the cycle responders will treat the patient at the scene and will advise on other options, such as self-care, or going to an NHS walk-in centre.

The cycle responders do one week of training on an emergency services cyclist training course run by Public Safety Cycling. Now that the service is growing, Lynch and his team advise units all over the UK and the rest of the world.

He says: “It’s becoming standardised and guidelines are being written. I’m very proud. We’re doing really good work.”

Lynch is a passionate advocate of the Ambulance Service, as well as the NHS as a whole, and in 2007 his dedication was rewarded with an MBE for his role in setting up the Cycle Response Unit.

“When I think of the NHS, I think of the red blanket you get in the back of an ambulance,” says Lynch. “You put it round someone. It’s comforting, and that’s the NHS to me.

“You don’t have to rely on a gesture of goodwill, and when other systems fail you can almost guarantee that an ambulance will be there to help you in an emergency.

“I see it in my colleagues. A call is always answered and it will always be answered professionally.”

About the Cycle Response Unit

The bikes and kit

The Cycle Response Unit uses custom-built Rockhopper mountain bikes with London Ambulance Service livery, blue lights and a siren. The bikes are lightweight and have a strengthened back wheel and stronger spokes, puncture-proof tyres, front and rear pannier bags and rack, tool kit, water bottles, cycle computer, and lights.

The medical kit

This includes, among other things, a defibrillator, one litre of oxygen and entonox (commonly known as gas and air), a pulse monitor, a blood pressure monitor, adult and child bag and mask resuscitators, adrenaline, aspirin, asthma and diabetes drugs, bandages and dressings, rubber gloves, and cleanser.

The rider

The rider is clothed in London Ambulance Service livery and protective equipment, which consists of a helmet, gloves, glasses, reflective jacket/jerseys, trousers (shorts for hot weather), waterproofs, cycle shoes, baselayers, socks, padded undershorts, skull cap, anti-pollution mask, protective body armour, utility belt with pouches, a radio with earpiece, and a mobile phone.

The distance

A bicycle paramedic cycles approximately 140 miles a week.