A case for firefighting motorcycles

Despite their popularity around the world, the motorcycle as a fire rig has been slow to catch on in the U.S.; here are some reasons to give them a close look

Four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and SUVs are a staple in fire department fleets across the United States for a variety of uses such as wildland firefighting and rescue and EMS responses. Medic units in urban areas have long been using bicycles to provide rapid care before an ambulance arrives.

But can another vehicle, the firefighting motorcycle, become the next addition to emergency-response fleets in the United States?

A fire bike — as it is more commonly known around the world — is as the name suggests: a motorcycle used by a fire department. Fire departments in Japan, Singapore, and Brazil are using fire bikes to reduce response times in high traffic congestion areas of major cities.

Fire bikes are being used for fire suppression — the equipment carried ranges from simple extinguishers to jet guns with hose rigs — and to provide EMS first response. And on the EMS side, it is not just for transporting medics and their equipment to the scene; in many countries the medic bike is used with a trailer or sidecar for transporting patients.

The São Paulo Fire Department of Brazil uses teams of two fire bikes to bring down first response times to fire or medical emergencies from 10 to 15 minutes to just 5 minutes in the city's congested streets. Their bikes are 400cc machines, and carry basic EMS equipment, tools, signaling devices, and other accessories, such as hand lights and elevator keys.

Quick attack
In Japan, the Tokyo Fire Department uses pairs of motorcycle units nicknamed Quick Attackers for firefighting, rescue and medical first aid. The department has two types of fire bike units, each uses two 200cc bikes.

Their Type T unit is equipped with a portable impulse fire extinguishing system, while a Type U unit carries simple rescue equipment and fire extinguishers.

In 2001, 20 Quick Attacker teams were in service; today the Tokyo Fire Department deploys 50 such teams. With Japan having a long history of earthquakes, Quick Attacker units are capable of off-road response and are also used for rapid fact-finding in earthquake and other disaster zones.

The Singapore Civil Defence [sic] Force introduced fire bikes in 1998 to combat increasing traffic congestion, with response time being a critical factor in preventing the spread of fires in the high-rise residential blocks of the urban island state. The force operates two-person fire bike teams manned by junior officers.

They are usually the first to arrive on scene, and, if necessary, will enter an occupancy to knock down the fire or prevent its spread. The riders are equipped with impulse guns, which can fire powerful bursts of water mist at speeds of up to 200 meters per second — that's 448 mph.

Brits on bikes
In the United Kingdom, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has operated a number of fire bikes in different roles since 2005. In July 2010, they became the first service in the U.K. to deploy fire bikes specially equipped to fight fires.

The two BMW R1200RT trail bikes are fitted with two, 6.6-gallon canisters filled with water and foam and a high-powered 98-foot-long jet hose. They are to be used to combat small fires to free up main fire apparatus.

Since 2005, Merseyside has been using a fire bike to respond to automated fire alarm calls in Liverpool to assess situations ahead of the arrival of main fire apparatus resources due to rising traffic congestion and because most of these automated calls are false alarms.

Of course fire bikes are not a magic bullet to all response issues. Employing them would require additional insurance, additional training for those fire bike team members and greater risk of personal injury if they are involved in a crash. There's also the issue of having to park the bikes when the weather is uncooperative, which in some areas is more than half the year.

L.A.'s fire bikes
In the United States, there are very few instances of fire departments using fire bikes.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Fire Department launched a pilot unit consisting of five off-road-capable motorcycles on loan from Kawasaki. Each bike was outfitted with a defibrillator, a small fire extinguisher, various medical supplies and a handlebar-mounted GPS system.

A dozen firefighters underwent the necessary training, and a permanent unit could have up to 10 motorcycles and 28 riders.

The pilot motorcycle response team was a five-person unit being used to speed to the side of an injured victim, provide information to dispatchers and skirt traffic to scout fires and other problems.

The unit first rode during "Carmageddon," when the 405 Freeway closed for major demolition work and reconstruction. The program is still in operation, however, LAFD did not respond to requests for information by the publication date.

Florida rides
Several other major fire departments in the United States have looked at initiating fire and/or EMS motorcycle programs including Miami-Metro Dade County in Florida. But, for financial reasons of one sort or another they never got off the ground.

In addition to scouting fires, advocates said the motorcycle response team could help save lives. When a heart attack occurs, the American Heart and Lung Association says, irreversible brain damage can begin after four minutes.

Motorcycle-borne medics equipped with defibrillators in Miami cut response times from an average of seven minutes to less than three in some places, a Miami-Metro Dade department spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times in September 2012.

The Miami-Metro Dade program consisted of 10 donated motorcycles, but was dismantled in 2008 in the midst of department-wide budget cuts despite its relatively low $36,000 per year operating costs.

Fort Walton Beach, Florida is adding two leased motorcycles for rapid EMS response. It only cost about $600 per bike to insure them and outfit them with lights, radios and equipment. Use of the bikes is largely being donated as the lease is for $1 per year.

Special uses
While fire bikes have proven their mettle in helping reduce response times in congested cities, as shown by their use in other countries, they could fill a variety of tactical roles here in the U.S.

They could be used for scouting, mapping and information gathering at incidents spread out over a large geographical like wildland fires or the recent Amtrak train derailment outside of Philadelphia. Think firefighter on motorcycle with equipment capable of video streaming images right to the command post.

They could be used for response, access and delivery of fire suppression services to areas in urban, suburban, and rural settings, where regular-sized apparatus do not have access or that access is severely hindered. That could mean getting suppression actions to a fire while it's still in its incipient stage.

And they could be used for response to fire alarms in advance of regular fire apparatus. This would get a firefighter on scene more quickly to evaluate the need for continued response by fire apparatus.

Besides the tactical functions that motorcycles could provide to a fire department's operations, there is also the potential for cost savings that could be realized through less wear and tear on regular apparatus in the fleet. 

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