Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The role of bicycles in natural disasters

BMXer making the most of Christchurch post-quake roads
[via matthewjctalbot's yfrog Stream]

The Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake shone the light on the issues that can be faced getting access to fuel{1} to power motor vehicles (and the high price of fuel when it is available{2}), motor vehicles being damaged or out of action, the damage done to roads making them impassable{3}, and the problems with congestion on roads in the aftermath of a disaster getting in the way of emergency workers{4}. There were stories of masses of people showing up on bicycle to an open air mass{5} to remember those lost in the disaster. There have been daily images on news networks of people riding through the devastated town, and to check up on friends, on badly damaged roads closed to motorized traffic. There have been some amateur reporters riding around after the earthquake filming and posting the results on youtube and social media, which the media networks then pick up... which may or may not be a good thing. 

Man rides on earthquake damaged road [via Daylife]

This got me thinking about the role bicycles play in the aftermath of a natural disaster, both in emergency response and in disaster recovery. So I did a bit of online research and it seems bicycles are being used more and more in emergency response and in recovery efforts. 

Emergency Response

Bicycle paramedics [via Wikipedia]
There are stories from across the world of bicycle paramedics being employed to handle the demands on emergency services during major events. Ambulance Victoria has Bicycle Response Paramedics in a Bicycle Response Unit (or BRU). According to the Ambulance Victoria website:

The Bicycle Response Unit is not a full time service, but works at special events across Victoria such as the Spring Racing Carnival, Formula 1 and Motor bike grand prix, street parades and New Years Eve. These types of events generally have large crowds and difficult vehicle access which makes the bicycle response quicker and more efficient.
Bicycle response paramedics have a high level of fitness and are often involved in sports such as cycling or triathlon outside of work. When working in the Bicycle Response Unit, they are often first on scene and, although they cannot transport patients, they carry modified versions of all the equipment stored on a standard ambulance.

There's also a bubble with the following:

Ross Manning, Bicycle Response Unit... Works at special events, such as big race meetings and New Year’s Eve, where there are large crowds and difficult access. ‘What we didn’t realise when we started (in 2000) is how many jobs we’d pick up just riding around. Sometimes you beat the triple zero call. 
More information on the BRU from the website:

The Bicycle Response Unit is helping Ambulance Victoria cut through the crowds at Melbourne’s major sporting and cultural events.
The time it takes to get to patients is paramount to saving lives but responding ambulances through dense crowds can be a challenge.
The Bicycle Response Unit was established in the lead-up to the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games to provide rapid casualty access in crowded areas.
Bicycle response paramedics took an average of just two minutes to reach emergencies at Flemington Racecourse when they first took to their bikes for the 2005 Spring Racing Carnival.
And when hundreds of thousands of Victorians packed Melbourne for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, bicycle response paramedics reached 90 per cent of cases within six minutes with an average response time of just 3.3 minutes.
The Bicycle Response Unit attends events such as New Year’s Eve celebrations, the Big Day Out and the Anzac Day parade.
Equipment carried is light, compact and functional and includes first aid gear, a ventilator and a small defibrillator the size of a CD case to restart the hearts of people in cardiac arrest.
Bicycle response paramedics wear highly visible vests that carry water, radio, gloves and other equipment and their bikes have flashing lights and sirens to warn people they are on their way to an emergency.
The Bicycle Response Unit is supported by a transport vehicle that can move bicycle response units and carry additional supplies and equipment. 

But it seems that pedestrians don't take much notice of bicycle paramedics sirens to move out of the way, which would ring a few bells for city cyclists who have trouble with pedestrians stepping out into a bike's path when the pedestrians would not consider doing the same to cars, and pedestrians having no clue what a bell ringing on a shared path means (i.e. move to the left).

London bicycle paramedic video

 Paramedic bike kit video

St John's ambulance is also recruiting for bicycle-based St John's volunteers.

Manufacturers of emergency vehicle lighting and sirens are now also providing for bicycles.

Security Patrols

The following extract from the University of Sydney website on their Bike Patrol

In January 1997 the University of Sydney established a Security Bicycle Patrol Unit. The development of the service was desirable in consideration of:
  • Proven record of service - Bicyle Patrol units have been in operation in Security and law enforcement organisations for many years. Many Universities and like organisations around the World are known to use bike patrols.
  • Reliable and cost efficient - After initial expenditure on equipment the bikes are very cheap to operate and maintain. The initial purchase of equipment is itself relatively inexpensive compared to other vehicle based patrolling techniques.
  • Positive approachable image - Officers on bikes are much more approachable than those in vehicles. Bikes do not provide the same physical barrier to communication and approach that is unavoidable in cars. The location of the Officer in relation to environment is desirable as it allows him/her to identify cues to security/safety issues more readily.
  • Environmentally friendly - Bikes are an environmentally friendly alternative to other vehicles. Bikes are a quiet and clean way to move about the campus without adding to the daily campus traffic/parking load.
  • Highly Visible - Officers on bikes are highly visible and can move around the campus quickly and efficiently. The deterrent effect of visible patrolling is well known and encouraged.
  • Safety - Bikes are safe means of transport both for the rider and in consideration of the reduction of risk to other campus users.
  • Operational Efficiency - The physical nature of the campus tied to the patterns of use by the community make bikes an efficient way of moving about. Bikes are highly visible when on routine patrol and offer a means for rapid response to any emergency elsewhere on the campus. Officers on bikes are known to be able to respond more quickly than those in vehicles in many circumstances whilst maintaining high levels of safety. Bikes provide a quiet, efficient and proactive means to patrol relatively large areas in short time frames. Personnel
  • Considerations - Bikes provided an opportunity for Officers to improve their physical fitness whilst performing duty. In addition, the inclusion of this means of patrolling increased work diversity and interest.
Since the introduction of the service, feedback from the University community has been very positive. The community appears to appreciate the advantages of the technique and clearly encourages the community based nature of this type of service.
Bicycle Patrol Officers wear a distinctive uniform when engaged on this duty. Whilst it is based on the normal Patrol Officers' uniform, allowances have been made for the operational demands of this type of duty. Certain uniform variations are dictated by Occupational Health and Safety and Officer comfort considerations. Bicycle Patrol Officers wear helmets when riding as this is a requirement under the Australian Road Rules.
Since its inception the Bicycle Patrol has an impressive record of performance in routine and emergency service. The Patrol has been instrumental in effecting many arrests in circumstances that indicate other methods of patrolling would, in all probability, have failed.
The Bicycle Patrol Unit Facilitator is Patrol Officer Paul Taylor. The Bicycle Patrol Unit is a function of the Security Patrol Service.
Security patrols to prevent looting and assess the amount of damage would likely be a good use of resources post-disaster.

Disaster recovery

World Bicycle Relief enhances disaster recovery programs by providing bicycles. They have assisted a number of projects including working with World Vision to provide twenty-four THOUSAND bikes to Sri Lankan people after the 2004 tsunami. In Zambia, in conjunction with a list of NGOs, they have provided 23000 bicycles to heath care volunteers and disease prevention educators caring for those affected by HIV/AIDS (manage to increase volunteer retention rates by about double), and also trained 450 bike mechanics to enable them to have a source of income. Zambia is also the focus of the current project to provide bicycles to students, resulting in dramatically increased school attendance and therefore levels of education.

The list of benefits the World Bicycle Relief believes it provides are impressive, and include:

  • 88% of recipients continued to depend on bicycles for livelihood activities after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka
  • Bicycles saved households up to 30% of annual income for transportation costs (Sri Lanka tsunami recovery)
  • Bicycles provided critical, appropriate transportation enabling households to resume important livelihood, education and service activities (Sri Lanka tsunami recovery)
Some areas of the US have community emergency response teams (CERTs) which can use "relays of bicycle-equipped runners can effectively carry mail between the teams and the local emergency operations center."

See also: 

{1}. talks about disruption to fuel supplies in Christchurch following the quake.
{2} talks about the increased price of fuel supplies following the quake.
{3}. mentions roads that were only accessible by bicycle during a natural disaster.
{4} talks about the traffic congestion in Christchurch impeding emergency vehicles.

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