Interview: Life as a Blood Biker

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MCN caught up with Joe Logan; member, trustee, trainer, rider and coordinator for Blood Bike group the Severn Freewheelers about life as a volunteer emergency rider and the work the charity does. If you’re interested in volunteering in your area visit their website here.

How does Blood Bikes work?

The particular group that I operate under is called Severn Freewheelers. We operate just north of Bristol and we cover the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and North Wiltshire as well. We’ve recently reorganised the group and we operate four bikes, in effect, on a daily basis, one covering each of those four counties. We have hospitals that act as a hub in each of those areas and each of the riders is placed geographically to save us operational time and effort and cash as well. Saving cash is important as we don’t get any government funding and our operation (Severn Freewheelers) alone costs around £54,000 per year to operate.

How do you afford to keep it going?

We’re quite lucky in that respect. All the groups are self-funding but there are different models in place. A lot of guys are out at the supermarket each weekend with a bucket collecting. We’re different in that we rely on local groups to give us slightly larger donations and there are some private benefactors who like to be favourable to us.

We don’t have an official tie-up with any manufacturers like some groups, but BMW allow us to buy their ex-police demonstrator fleet at a slightly discounted rate. That way we get a bike that’s run in with three to four thousand miles on the clock.

How many miles do the bikes see in a year?

About 30,000 miles per year, so a lot for a bike.

How long do you run the bikes?

About two years before we are looking to replace them. We generally buy two or three bikes each year.

How many Blood Bike groups are there?

There’s 31 in the country, which equates to 27,000 volunteers and 56,134 deliveries of blood last year.

How long has it been running?

Severn Freewheelers has been going for 10 years but we’re not the oldest group. Bristol for example have been going for around 30 years now. Not a lot of people realise how long some of the groups have been around.

How long have you been a Blood Biker?

Getting on for three years now. I actually got interested about 20 years ago but the issue was that I didn’t have the time to be able to commit to the organisation or to undertake the advanced rider training I needed. It was only in later life that I found enough free time and money to do it.

What got you involved?

It offers bikers a chance to do something they enjoy doing, and at the same time give something back to society. A lot of guys have different stories, some have family members who have been recipients of the products that Blood Bikers carry themselves. I’ve never had anything like that, I just wanted to give something back to society.

What bikes do you have on your fleet?

We have a mixed fleet at the moment in that we have three BMW RT1200 police spec bikes, and also two Yamaha FJR1300s, also police spec. We’re also currently trialling a BMW F800 with a view to having a slightly less weighty bike and perhaps introduce a more representative cross-section of bikers, women and younger riders. Also, some of our older or shorter volunteers will appreciate a bike that’s not so difficult to get on and off the centre stand.

What are the bikes equipped with?

All the bikes are police spec so the same ‘blues and twos’ the police have.

Are you blue light trained?

We are. There’s no one size fits all for the different groups but in terms of Free Wheelers, we are authorised to operate on blue lights and sirens provided certain conditions are met. If there is danger to life, the hospital can put us into an emergency mode and it’s only under those circumstances that the riders can use blue lights.

Some of the other groups don’t use them at all, and some of them has less stringent rules as well.

In our case, we can only use the lights and sirens as an attention getter, but we can’t go through red lights or stop signs, ride the wrong side of bollards or use hard shoulders like the other emergency services.

What did you have to do to become blue light trained?

I’m the training officer for the group, so I actually teach our riders. I have documentation inherited from my predecessor, I keep up to date online and I have a working relationship with several active police officers (some of whom are in the group) to bounce ideas off. Another of our members is a special with the Met police in London.

There’s no extra qualifications or training for us, and that’s what differentiates us from the other emergency services and is the reason we don’t get the extra dispensations on blue lights.

There’s a potential change to the Road Traffic Act which would allow Blood Bikers to use full blue lights but it will likely require a very expensive course. We wouldn’t expect our members to go and do £5,000 worth of training and we can’t afford to pay for it as a charity.

How many members do you have in your area?

We have just over 100 members and about 70 of us who are riders. We have people who man the telephones acting as dispatchers, and also people who are there just as fundraisers.

We don’t have any paid members, they’re all volunteers.

Do you enjoy being a Blood Biker?

I do, despite the fact I’ve been out in -4 degrees, in the ice and slippery conditions. Despite the fact I’ve got up to go to work before at 5.30 am and not got off the bike until 3.30 am the following morning, before getting up for work again two hours later. Despite the fact that it can be quite difficult at times and you have to focus the mind to get through it, it is something that we enjoy.

Can it be quite lonely work?

Yeah, the only contact we usually have is when we stop off at hospitals to pick up or deliver. You can have some pretty difficult interactions with the hospitals, who don’t always understand that we’re volunteers. They can make comments assuming that we’re being well payed for working the night shift, which of course we aren’t.

I tend to keep a pack of fliers on me to explain the situation. It’s all part of increasing the awareness of what Blood Bikes collectively do for the NHS.

Do you know what you transport or is it usually unknown?

It’s a mix really. The term Blood Biker can be a bit of a misnomer, not all the groups transport whole blood because their areas use the blood and transplant service for that. In that instance, they will be used to collect samples from outlying hospitals and take them to pathology labs for analysis. Not all pathology labs are able to carry out all the tests.

Another big area that we’re involved in is the transport of human breast milk. Premature babies have a 70% better chance of survival if they’re given breast milk. Mothers may not be able to provide it themselves.

Sometimes we transport medication between hospitals or even equipment or paperwork like scans and x-rays. We’ve moved personal affects between hospitals, from phones to false teeth. On one occasion, we were asked to move a skeleton.

How much time do you give to the organisation?

There’s very little time that I’m not involved with it in some form each day of the week. I’m a rider, a co-ordinator and also part of the events team. I’m also a trustee and the training manager. At times, it feels as if it’s all-consuming and there’s little time for much else.

What sort of time would an average person need to commit to get involved?

There’s no hard and fast requirement and it differs between groups. Some groups just need a commitment for one night at a time. We look for two shifts per week, but we’re flexible. Some people work away from home during the week so we try to get them to commit to weekends. In fact, over the Christmas period we cut that down to one day shifts to give people time with their families, otherwise people could end up on shift for four straight days.

We make a training commitment to our riders and so we expect a certain amount of return in the form of time.

Which advanced riding qualification do you look for?

RoSPA silver or gold qualification, or a pass from IAM. We don’t stipulate one or the other, all we require is an advanced qualification. We also require that the qualification be kept up to date every three years. RoSPA require that anyway, but the IAM will need to be retaken for or policy.

What’s the best thing about being a Blood Biker?

It’s the opportunity to do something I enjoy, riding a bike, while also giving something back to society. It’s one of those intangible things I suppose, I don’t make a big deal about it and a lot of our members are the same. It’s not something you do for any reward, other than peace of mind and the knowledge that we’re doing something for the greater good of society.

What’s the worst part about it?

Being in freezing fog at 3am and -4 degrees is a low point I suppose.

What does your wife think of the phone going in the middle of the night for a call-out?

It’s just one of those things. She’s a member of the group as well, although not an active member in terms of riding or coordinating, but she understands that it’s something I enjoy and I try to get to the phone quickly so it doesn't disturb anyone.

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