If you ask Vancouver bike squad lead, Darren Metta, he’d say you must really love riding a bike.
“You don’t have to love driving to be a paramedic in an ambulance; you do have to love cycling to be a bike paramedic,” says Metta.
The Downtown East Side bike squad will put in about 40 kilometres a day on a shift. But before you say, ‘ahhh that’s not too far’ . . .they do it with an extra hundred pounds on their kitted bikes and there’s nothing leisurely about their pace.
Historically, the downtown bike squad has been seasonal, from May to October, but this year they pushed through the winter weather, and COVID, and will complete a full year of work this May.
Last November the squad moved into their own accommodations in the basement of Vancouver’s Waterfront Station thanks to an offer of free space by the building’s manager, Cadillac Fairview. Down in the basement, several flights below the station, there is a maze of hallways. Tucked away at street level is the squad’s annex, ready for quick escapes, either onto the street or into the back alleys, where they prefer to do most of their travel (they don’t have to stop for red lights in the alleys).
The bike crew is appreciative for the space which also features lockers, gear, a drying area, a mechanic station and an open room commandeered for stretching before and after shifts, where looping videos on cycling tips, stretching, and yoga are playing on a small screen. Metta says, as a bike paramedic you are the engine and you must take care of your engine to keep going, to be able to respond on your bike throughout your shift. An 11-hour shift averages about eight calls, but it’s not unusual to do 10-14 calls.
“We are very low barrier,” says Metta. He means people can easily talk to the bike paramedics. It works both ways. The bike squad will do a “windshield survey” on people as they ride past, doing a second loop around if they are concerned about a person who doesn’t respond to their “hello, how’s it going?”
The bike squad continuously patrols its 10-square-kilometer area which stretches from the farthest point of Stanley Park, through the downtown business core and into the Downtown East Side. They are part of a community; one they know well and are known in.
The paramedics have regular patients; they know their names, their stories, their struggles, and recoveries. A testament to their acceptance in the community is in five years not a single paramedic bike has been stolen in the downtown core. Even though the bikes go everywhere the paramedics go, even in buildings, they are left unlocked while they attend to patients.
The people in the neighbourhood recognize the crew, the bikes and the gear and leave them alone so paramedics can continue to respond to the people in their community.
“The respect and personal connection in the community makes it that much more rewarding but also that much harder emotionally,” says Metta.
The bike squad generates a lot of written reports and notes for paramedics who travel outside with little protection to write. And Metta meticulously keeps track of the data. For example, a closer look at the last six months of bike squad work shows bike paramedics responded to 358 overdose calls and identified and responded to 107 medical calls while patrolling the alleys, streets and parks – calls that didn’t come from dispatch.
Part of their reporting includes a post-shift action report on everything from ambulances cancelled or downgraded, to weather or how many thank-you’ s they received that day. It’s a remarkable little piece of administration on the job. It’s not unusual to see 21 thank you’s, high fives, or ‘thanks for the job you do’ on a shift. It’s 21 people, sometimes strangers, sometimes people they’ve helped, who see the bike paramedics and want to thank them for what they do.
The community is grateful for their presence and it seems to make the work of the bike paramedics that much more meaningful and satisfying. Makes you wonder if these are some of the most contented paramedic crews, remarkably, working in one of the hardest, most complex neighbourhoods in the province.