ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. (WCCO) — Safety first on the trail typically means wearing a helmet.
But in St. Louis Park, the fire department is rolling out a new way to care for the community.
“Wherever the person is injured is where we can go with these bikes,” said Andy Willenbring as he sat on his flashy, two-wheeled tool.
Willenbring leads the department’s EMS bike patrol team, consisting of 21 firefighter EMT’s who will rotate riding the heavy duty bikes throughout town.
“We can go off road, we can go down ravines, go up and down stairs,” he said, along with other places and fire truck or ambulance can’t fit.
“When we’re patrolling through a large gathering of people like Fourth of July fireworks or parade, we can go through that crowd like nothing versus a fire truck or an ambulance or a police car, it would take them some time to move people out of the way,” he said.
The bikes haul 40 pounds of medical equipment, ready to react to all types of calls. They carry tourniquets, an oxygen tank, neck brace and an automated external defibrillator (AED). It’s like having a high-powered first aid kit strapped to a highly mobile EMT.
“Whatever we have on our fire trucks is what we carry on our bikes,” said Willenbring.
Last summer, Deputy Chief John Wolff said the St. Louis Park Police Department used grant funding to buy bikes for officers. They had one to spare, which Wolff requested for his EMT’s.
This summer, the program has expanded to include a second bike and a full team. Members have been training on the bikes with the St. Paul Police Department to learn how to maneuver through crowds and across different terrain, which can be difficult when hauling an extra 40 pounds around the back wheel.
“You do notice (the weight) when you’re turning and stuff, that it takes a little bit of getting used to before you’re comfortable riding it,” said Willenbring.
The bikes obviously don’t move as fast as an ambulance, but their ability to go places a vehicle can’t allows the team to cut response time in certain situations from minutes to seconds. And with 38 miles of trails in town, speed is critical.
Matt Kelly, who was riding on a trail with his daughter, said, “It seems like a good idea to have them out there, quick response is always a good thing.”
Just be sure to clear a path when they’re on a call. Red and blue lights on the handle bars will flash, but a siren is still in the works.
“We just yell, get out of the way, or something like that,” Willenbring joked.
The bike team will begin regular patrols just ahead of Memorial Day weekend, with an emphasis on weekends and events that draw large crowds. Willenbring said outside of responding to medical calls, they’re hoping the bike patrols will help the fire department with community outreach and building relationships with families enjoying the outdoors around town.