St John bicycle ambulance service

This article was published in 2007, in Newsletter 70.

A metallic container in a corner of Park Street Cycle Park is home to a new ambulance station. The two bicycle ambulances inside it provide cover at weekends for the central area of the city of Cambridge.

The bicycles themselves are customised mountain bikes, with front suspension, disk brakes and mudguards. The rear racks are heavily laden with bulging panniers and the whole package is yellow and fluorescent green. The riders are not known as ‘paramedics’, but must use the official term ‘ambulance responders’.

This new service does not replace the statutory requirement for motor ambulances to be despatched.

It works like this:

  1. An emergency 999 (or 112) call is received at a call handling centre.
  2. At the moment the location details are accepted, a text message is sent to both the ‘normal’ ambulance service and to the St John bicycle ambulance service. Both services allocate vehicles and despatch using their normal procedures.
  3. Within the central area of the city, the bicycle ambulance is more likely to reach the patient before the motor ambulance

When the scheme was about to launch it was anticipated that the ambulance responder would have the power to cancel the motor ambulance after an assessment of the patient. I’ve just heard that due to ‘rather complicated insurance reasons’ they cannot stand down the statutory ambulance. This is a shame because the project will not reduce the demand on the normal ambulance service or free up those ambulances for duties elsewhere.

Bicycle Ambulances on display at the launch of Sustrans 10 000th mile in September 2005. They now serve central Cambridge from Park Street Cycle Park.
Image as described adjacent

The riders are specially trained to ride at speed through the city. The bicycles are equipped with sirens to warn the public when they are on a mission, but they’ve been requested not to use blue flashing lights because of fears of confusion with ‘normal’ ambulances. Blue flashing lights are used by emergency response bicycles in London.

The man behind the project, Wayne Badcock, does not claim to be a cyclist himself, or even particularly interested in cycling. He said ‘when looking at ways of providing patient care in the city it was clear that bicycles were the most effective way to get to the parts of the city normal ambulances couldn’t reach’. This project has followed from that conclusion.

Nicky Ward, for the East of England Ambulance Service, said the scheme could be a real life-saver. ‘In busy city centres traffic can sometimes slow down ambulances, whereas cyclists can cut through the jams quickly,’ she added. ‘The cycling responder could be a real lifesaver; even if they only arrive two minutes before the ambulance this could mean the difference between life and death to someone who has suffered a cardiac arrest.’

‘when looking at ways of providing patient care in the city it was clear that bicycles were the most effective way to get to the parts of the city normal ambulances couldn’t reach’

This is good news for accident victims and for the status of practical cycling in the city. Park Street Cycle Park has recently seen the launch of a free pushchair hire scheme. This project further boosts the cycle park as a hub for cycle transport activities.

The project is new to Cambridge but similar schemes have been operating in several other UK cities for many years. It has been a long haul to get this far, and the currently imposed constraints on the service reflect the cautious approach of authority. If the service becomes successfully established I expect some of those constraints will loosen over time.

Simon Nuttall