In Baton Rouge, bicycle peramedics a common sight

Published 12:51 am Monday, April 6, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Two-wheeled EMS came of age in Baton Rouge when the driver of a Mardi Gras float lost consciousness and plowed into the crowd, injuring 13. TV news showed paramedics on bicycles, zipping through the throngs.

‘‘Several people in the crowd were critically injured; they had tire marks on them from the vehicle running over them,’’ said paramedic Tom Harris, East Baton Rouge Parish EMS public service coordinator and head of the unit’s 26-member bicycle team.

That was in 1997. ‘‘We went from, basically, no budget and riding unclaimed bicycles we got from the police department and eight EMS’’ cyclists to $30,000, not counting overtime, bicycles made for emergency medical service work, maintenance for the bicycles, uniforms for the paramedics, training and conferences, Harris said.

Email newsletter signup

The paramedics spend most of their time on ambulances — seven 12-hour shifts every two weeks. Last year’s 5,000 hours on bicyles was overtime or through rearranged regular shifts.

Chad Guillot, EMS’ assistant administrator, saw paramedics on bicycles in Denver 16 years ago during the visit of Pope John Paul II. The next year, Baton Rouge had a fledgling EMS corps on wheels.

Today, paramedics on bicycles in Baton Rouge are a familiar sight at LSU and Southern University football games, festivals, parades, and running and walking events.

‘‘We don’t charge (event organizers) because Pam Porter, our EMS administrator, feels it’s a community service,’’ Harris said.

As part of that service, Harris and squad presented a three-hour cycling class last month.

A bicycling awareness campaign came out of Mayor Kip Holden’s ‘‘Listening Tour,’’ Harris said. Residents told the mayor they wanted more bicycle paths and sidewalks.

‘‘Sidewalks and bicycle paths cost money,’’ Harris said. The free bicycle safety class wasn’t meant to make Baton Rouge bicycle friendly overnight. ‘‘We want to educate motorists and cyclists on the rules of the road and the law,’’ Harris said.

He said the reaction from motorists is completely different when he’s on his public service model bicycle, wearing his EMS helmet and uniform. It’s almost, he said, as if he were Lance Armstrong.

In an LSU T-shirt and civvie cycling shorts, ‘‘motorists react totally differently,’’ he said.

While motorists tolerate cyclists in traffic, most think bicyclists belong on the sidewalk, Harris said.

The Baton Rouge Traffic Code forbids riding on the sidewalk within a business district. Defining a business district isn’t always easy, Harris said.

Cyclists who do ride on sidewalks must yield to pedestrians, honking horns or ringing bells before overtaking and passing walkers. Otherwise, bicycles follow the same traffic rules as cars, traveling the same direction, obeying the same signs and signals, and signaling moves to one another.

Common sense fills the gaps. If there’s a path next to a road, use it. Don’t assume that drivers will know they are supposed to yield to cyclists any time they’d yield to other cars.

Stop signs mean come to a complete stop, just as they do for cars. A standing stop — keeping balance, feet on pedals for a few seconds while checking out an intersection — is legal, Harris said.

Ride a bicycle that fits you, the paramedic said. Make eye contact with drivers, wave to let them know you’re about to cross the street. Use standard hand signals to show that you’re turning or stopping.

Harris has a bell on his bicycle to tell pedestrians he’s coming. He announces ‘‘on your left’’ or ‘‘on your right’’ to tell a walker or runner on which side he’ll pass.

Although they recommend rearview mirrors on helmets for most riders, paramedics don’t wear them. Mirrors get in the way when treating patients.