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Los Angeles firefighters test motorcycle response unit

September 24, 2012 |  6:23 am

Los Angeles firefighters are testing motorcycles as a way to respond to incidents in the traffic-snarled city

Los Angeles firefighters are testing a two-wheeled way to respond to incidents in the traffic-snarled city: motorcycles.

The Los Angeles Fire Department's pilot motorcycle response team is a five-man 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 last year's "Carmageddon" closure of the 405 Freeway, and its next deployment is to take place during a follow-up closure this weekend, when workers will demolish the other half of the Mulholland Drive bridge overhead.

Fire departments serving traffic-snarled cities around the nation have adopted similar motorcycle teams to improve response times, staff special events and, in some cases, save lives and resources. As the L.A. Fire Department faces budget cuts and intense scrutiny over response times that lag behind national standards, some believe that a motorcycle unit could help the department.

The pilot unit features five off-road-capable motorcycles on loan from the Kawasaki Motor Corp. Each bike retails for about $6,300 and is outfitted with a defibrillator, a small fire extinguisher, various medical supplies and a handlebar-mounted GPS system. A dozen firefighters have undergone the necessary training, and a permanent unit could have up to 10 motorcycles and 28 riders, said Capt. Craig White, who first proposed the unit to the department.

White said he'd thought about creating a motorcycle unit for years, and last year's 405 closure -- shutting down 10 miles of one of the nation's busiest freeways -- presented the ideal test. The department already had a bicycle medic unit for events such as the L.A. Marathon.

Though the nightmare Carmageddon traffic jams that officials feared never materialized, the motorcycle unit had an opportunity to show what it could do earlier this month.

As a 70-acre brush fire stopped traffic on the 405 and caused the evacuation of the Getty Center, firefighter Greg Pascola and his partner reached the command post within three minutes -- even before helicopters could reach the site. They were handed radios and began to map the blaze, weaving between cars, hopping sidewalks and navigating narrow, curving mountain roads.

"At the time, we were the only ones out there to scout," Pascola said.

LAFD Chief Brian Cummings said motorcycles could be "one of the solutions" the department considers for improving response times.

"Do I see the motorcycles supplanting larger vehicles? No. There's always going to be a need to bring heavy equipment and large numbers of individuals," Cummings said. "They each have a role. They're each tools in the toolbox."

White, a motorcycle enthusiast since high school, said the unit's biggest selling point is its flexibility.

"Right now," he said, "we just want to see what we can do with them."

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-- Frank Shyong

Photo: The sun shines through smoke as Los Angeles firefighters and motorcycle medic unit members Greg Pascola, left, and Wes Schroeder make a radio call from their motorcycles to assist fellow firefighters during the recent fire near the Getty Center. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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