We find out how two wheels can help keep Torontonians healthier.
Whether it’s for a party like Pride or an event like the Air Show, when Toronto comes out en masse, it can be tough for first responders to get through the crowds. Events like Caribana, as well as weekend hotspots like the club district, have their own unique ways of dealing with medical emergencies: they use bicycle EMS (emergency medical services). Toronto’s EMS employs 50-odd CAN-BIKE-certified paramedics who have been trained to respond to medical emergencies in crowded conditions, and to patrol areas where Torontonians might need some medical attention.
Ryan Toth has been on Toronto EMS’s bike team since 2010, and a paramedic since 1997. Talking about his two-wheeled training, he says, “The CAN-BIKE course taught us defensive driving, and skills like how to navigate stairs, and then in the afternoons we’d go out for rides.” Toth’s sixteen years of experience as a paramedic and his off-the-clock enthusiasm for cycling made becoming a bike paramedic was a natural fit.
Our interview with Toth—about emergency calls, crowd control, and the rewards of helping others—is below.
Torontoist: What made you decide to apply for the job of bike paramedic?
Ryan Toth: I enjoy biking on my days off, like mountain biking and trail riding, so I thought it would be neat to use those skills on the job. The bonus is also that you get to work big Toronto events. I’m a big fan of car racing, and I got to work the Toronto Indy a few years ago. I got to work, be on the bike, and be at the Indy, which was a big bonus for me. It’s being part of the public eye, being a role model for kids, and different opportunities professionally. I thought it was a good move to make.
Tell me about a typical call or helping moment.
We’ll get a call with a location and a call number, but I’m responding on my bike instead of in a vehicle. For example, during the CNE, [the bike EMS] have a dispatcher and a separate communications channel that’s just for the CNE. We keep track of all these calls—on the carts, the bikes, all of it—to see if maybe next year we should have more people on the team, or if some events need fewer responders.
Probably the most common event call is about someone who feels faint. It’s usually a hot day, not drinking enough water, feeling sick. Fortunately, they’re usually with family, who will flag us down or call in, and we’ll go. It’s often a perfect storm of feeling overwhelmed, and not enough to eat or drink. Many times, all they need is some water or Gatorade and they can sign off on feeling better, and we can leave them with their family or friends. Usually, we can make a pretty good judgment call on if they need to be transported.
How do you navigate the crowds on a fully loaded bike or during a call?
We do have little horns on the bikes, and we use those quite a bit. Trying to get through a crowd can take a bit of time. You’re usually biking behind people, or around kids, so we take low speeds with lots of caution—you never know if someone will walk into your bike and knock you off. We also have to take care of ourselves by taking a quick rest on the shade and drinking lots of fluids.
We keep crowd control in mind: when something is happening right in front of them, people want to watch. The patient has a right to privacy, so when we’re asking them medical or personal question, we try to get them to a quieter spot. Events like the Indy are tough, though, because it’s hard to hear when the cars are doing laps, so we can only get a few questions in before it’s too noisy, and we have to wait. We have to adapt.
How difficult is it to transition from working with a full complement of tools on hand, to working with whatever you can carry on a bike?
There’s a definitely a little bit of a challenge—it’s pretty close, but we don’t have the exact same devices. For example, taking blood pressure in an ambulance, the machine does it, but when I’m on a bike, I do it myself.
What’s the best part of this job?
Special events. I might not go to them on my days off, necessarily, but to be at work, to be at an event, to be in the public eye—we hand out magnet and stickers for the kids—and it’s nice to have a change and to get outside. It’s the same job as working on the ambulance, but it’s also not.