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Meet the cyclist squad saving lives in the Downtown Eastside

DTES bike paramedics responded to 63 emergency calls in their first 10 days
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DTES Bike Squad paramedics Tom Venables (left), Troy Gienger, Chris Iregui, and Darren Metta Photo: BCEHS

After nearly a year away from their bicycles, four Downtown Eastside paramedics have returned to two wheels.

When BC Emergency Health Services Bike Squad was reinstated Sept. 4, its DTES members attended 63 medical emergencies in just ten days.

Calls they responded to covered almost 20 per cent of Vancouver overdose calls in that same timespan, said BCEHS paramedic Darren Metta, one of the riders.

The 50-year-old gears up at 9 a.m. four days a week for a 45-kilometre ride that sees him and his partner work to save lives 11 hours straight.

For people in the DTES community, Bike Squad members offer a friendly face without the attention that ambulance sirens draw to a person suffering a medical emergency.

“We get flagged down a lot,” Metta elaborated.

“People walk up to us. A lot of times they don’t have access to a phone and tell us about someone nearby who ‘doesn’t look so good’,” he said.

“Then we’ll go check it out and they won't need to call 911."

It’s been four years since the BCEHS program first touched down in the neighbourhood.

Last year, from May 1 to Oct. 31, the team prevented 1,064 ambulance calls in downtown Vancouver due to their on-scene care.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a unique challenge to the paramedics, who work to dismount their bicycles at a safe social distance while being approached for help.

For every call, the paramedics don personal protective gear including a face shield, mask, and gloves. When there is a suspected COVID-19 case, the attendants wear a full-body gown.

“A lot of times we can get to the scene first,” Metta explained, as bikes can navigate congested areas and arrive at the patient's side faster than a traditional ambulance.

“It often reduces the time it takes for the person to get treated.”

And in instances of overdose, heart attack, or life-threatening injuries, every second a paramedic saves counts, said BCEHS spokesperson Sarah Morris.

“We also carry all the same medical equipment inside an ambulance, except for the stretcher,” Metta remarked.

The gear adds an extra 50 pounds to their mountain bikes, which are fitted with purpose-built panniers.

Though it's not always an easy job, Metta said it is a deeply rewarding one.

As a paramedic for the last 20 years, he has preferred interacting with the DTES community from the seat of his bike.

The BCEHS Bike Squad will be deployed until Oct. 31 as one of the several fleets in communities around B.C., including the Vancouver International Airport.