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Published: 22/08/2002, Volume II2, No. 5819 Page 14

Paramedics on bikes are delivering emergency care to the people of central London.Mark Gould donned his cycle clips and joined them It is 3.30 on a typical summer afternoon - rain and steamy sunshine in the maze of streets and squares around London's Soho. One of the strangest and most chaotic places in the country is living up to its reputation.

Sean Clarke leans against his Cannondale bicycle. He has unbuttoned his stab and bulletproof vest to get some air. He is clinking a little box of glass ampoules that the desperate men and women who live rough on the trendy streets of central London would kill for.

'There are about five or six people in Leicester Square right now that might need some of this, ' he says with a regretful smile, referring to a drug used to counter heroin overdoses.

This is among the small pharmacy of drugs for heart attacks, allergic reactions, asthma, diabetic crises and pain relief that Mr Clarke pedals around the streets.

He is one of a new breed of paramedic cyclists. Their bicycles are fitted with blue lights, sirens and 70kg of equipment, including heart-starting defibrillators and emergency maternity kits (as yet unused).

They are the latest weapons in the London Ambulance Service's battle to deliver emergency care to a city that receives over 3,000 ambulance calls a day.

The team is the brainchild of former BMX cycle champion and ambulance technician Tom Lynch, who is the co-ordinator of the LAS cycle response unit.

A pilot scheme carried out by Mr Lynch in the same area two years ago showed that in 88 per cent of calls, the bicycle arrived faster than a normal ambulance despatched at the same time. And in a third of cases the bicycle paramedic could deal with the situation alone, freeing the ambulance for more appropriate work.

'It was obvious, really. With a bicycle you are travelling at almost constant speed. Traffic jams do not stop you and you can filter through small gaps. We are reaching most of our calls in less than four minutes and all response times are well below the official eight-minute target, ' Mr Lynch says.

Mr Clarke says a prime example occurred recently when a lorry driver was run over by his own vehicle as he tried to stop it rolling down a side street into the Strand. 'A motorcycle, car, ambulance and helicopter ambulance were despatched and we were able to take the pressure off them by dealing with all the other incidents in the area.'

Since the end of July, a five-man and one-woman unit has been patrolling a 4km box covering Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Soho and Covent Garden.

Mr Lynch says the brief is to tackle less urgent category C calls.

If the present team's three-month trial goes well, it might be that bikes alone are sent to category C calls. Heathrow, Croydon and Kingston have been mentioned as other locations for the service.

LAS is coy about the price but says it is far cheaper than running car, motorcycle or ambulance teams. From a visibility point of view, it couldn't get better publicity.

While we chat, an elderly woman asks where to get a number 73 bus. Another man comes up, stands about six inches from one of the paramedics, stares intently and asks about his training.

Then three determined looking Albanian or Macedonian women in headscarves and ethnic skirts, each carrying a tiny baby, come and stand close to us. They point to a large, silent, but slightly menacing man, and say he is demanding money.

'That is Soho for you. It is a crazy place, ' Sean Clarke says. 'Last week, I had to fight off a hen party.

They had a bit to drink and wanted to have some fun. I also had to help a US tourist who was ripped off in a clip joint.'

'People are pleased when we arrive on the scene so quickly and also like the idea of the bikes. It is been very positive. You do get the abuse but It is from the usual age group, 19-25-year-old males.'

The units are working two eight-hour shifts a day: 8am-4pm and 2pm-10pm. They expect to attend about eight to ten calls per shift. The bulk of the morning work is on Oxford Street, but in the evenings Soho and Covent Garden are the busiest.

'Last Friday, I dealt with a lacerated head - someone had fallen down some stairs, 'Mr Clarke says.

'Then I had to babysit a very drunk young woman who was semi-conscious. Every five minutes, a new set of people came by saying, 'I think she needs to go to hospital'or, 'shouldn't you call an ambulance?' I had to keep pointing to my (paramedic) badge and saying 'everything is OK'.'