St John Ambulance Bicycle Team Turns 20 Years Old

They say necessity is the mother of invention. In 1998, two years prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, necessity reared its head in the form of the realisation that one of the world’s biggest events would soon challenge the very way St John Ambulance Australia (NSW) supports events.

With its large crowds, big venues, security and access challenges, the Olympics like no other event would test traditional approaches to major event coverage. St John Ambulance Australia (NSW) would need to think of new more innovative ways of responding to incidents, often across significant distances whilst navigating dense crowds and security restrictions. So it came to pass that in 1998 the St John Ambulance (NSW) Bicycle Emergency Response Team was born, commonly known as “BERT”, a service that would eventually evolve to become a key component of medical service delivery at major events across the state of New South Wales.

Today the St John (NSW) BERT team is comprised of 50 volunteers and 25 mountain bikes which provide over 3,600 hours of coverage annually across 70+ community events. Of course the team was not always this big or so well resourced. The team coordinator, Ron McWhirter describes what those early days were like, “BERT started from humble beginnings, our first few events were local fun runs and community events in the St George area of Sydney. Our first major event was the opening of the then Olympic Stadium. When we first started we did not even have dedicated vehicles, we literally rode to events, lucky for us most of our initial events were located within 8kms from our base”.

Over the 20 years that BERT has been in operation, the team has become a fixture at both small and large events across the state. The teams can be seen at large running events such as the famous Sydney City to Surf, small local fun runs, cycling events and festivals. Teams work in pairs with one bike equipped with oxygen equipment, the other with a defibrillator and both bicycles holding a range of consumable medical supplies and medications.

By any measure the BERT team has been an overwhelmingly successful program. Success has not come by accident, Ron puts the team’s success down to a handful of key factors. From day one the senior executives of St John have supported the program and have most importantly ensured it was funded. Having the right leadership in any program is important and has been instrumental in the BERT team’s success. However leaders in particular as Ron and his colleagues emphasize, need to consistently demonstrate the values that are important, authentic leadership is key! Values define the team, they ensure the service achieves its mission, the right people are attracted to the service and equally the right people remain as volunteers. Lastly it does not hurt to have high standards and apply those standards to all volunteers equally. Volunteers feel a sense of pride and validation when part of a team that is respected and recognised for its values, its culture and capability.

What does the future hold for BERT? While Ron is a traditionalist, he cannot deny the impact e-bikes are having on the cycling industry in general and feels this will be the next big thing for bicycle EMS programs. Not only is technology changing, the face of volunteering is also changing and this will in the future have a significant impact on volunteer EMS agencies like BERT. Programs like BERT which traditionally are staffed by long term volunteers will need to adapt to an ever increasing number of volunteers looking for short term engagements. How will an agency like BERT balance short term volunteering with the governance requirements of a specialist service like BERT? We will need to watch this space to find out.

When speaking with the BERT team it is clear there is an enormous sense of pride for what the team represents and what it has achieved. Ron sums up the sentiment of the team best when stating, “I feel proud that we can make such a difference to patient outcomes. I personally have been involved myself in three cardiac arrests and many other serious patients whom without our care might not have had such positive outcomes. I could say without any doubt that this team’s formation and continued deployments have saved countless lives.”

Congratulations BERT on achieving such an extraordinary milestone.