What’s a Bike Team Worth?  The PR Value of an EMS Bike Team

By Nick Gatlin, EMSCI #036
Williamson Medical Center EMS, Franklin (TN)

Anyone who has worked as a public safety cyclist knows that it is a positive thing. You can see the reaction when a kid's eyes get big or a parent thanks you for being there. In a very short period of time, we make a connection with the community that our non-pedaling counterparts will probably never understand. Unfortunately, some of those people live behind a desk, wielding calculators and pens that determine whether or not your job exists. How can you make them understand your worth in a way they can comprehend?

In short, you need numbers. All of the intangible things about public safety cycling will have to go out the window because they will not fit anywhere on a spreadsheet. The smiling kids and the people who wave as you ride down their streets are out of the picture. Somehow, you've got to make fiscal sense, and that's difficult… but not impossible.

Our team has evolved into what is essentially a marketing tool for our organization, but it wasn't always this way. Through a couple of lucky breaks, we found a way to justify our existence using hard numbers, just as the accountants would demand. Here's how that happened.

First, you must understand that we are a hospital-based ambulance service, technically owned by the county, but contracted through the county-owned hospital. That means that we are considered a department of the hospital, but provide the only emergency ambulance service in our county. (If you don't think this article applies to you because you're not hospital-based or EMS, don't give up just yet.) This gave us a big advantage. Hospitals must compete with each other for market share, and much of this is done through advertising.

For some unknown reason, we decided during our first few months that it would be a good idea to keep up with the number of people in attendance at the events we worked. I have no idea why we did it, but it proved to be the key to selling the program. During our second year, we found that we had provided EMS coverage for 600,000 people at forty events in a single season. By most people's account, that's not an incredible number. We're probably at twice that now. If you provide service for a college football stadium, you'll reach that number in a fairly short period of time. If you're a police officer patrolling a beach, you could do that in a matter of a couple of days!

At some point, it was bound to happen. The accountants attacked. It was nothing personal, but at sixty to eighty events per year, we were costing a great deal of money. Were we worth it? Could we somehow show an accountant why this made sense?

By this time, we had developed a good relationship with our marketing department. We gave out stickers, pens, brochures and information at every event and to people we saw on patrols at the parks. The marketing department was buying this stuff, but they had a limited number of chances to get it out to the public. When they did, they were usually confined to a single table or booth. We usually represented a half-dozen "mobile booths," and an equal number of representatives to speak to the public. The marketing department realized this and came to our rescue. Here's how they did it.

Advertising costs money. Advertising targeted toward your specific market costs even more money. To target what they felt was their market, our marketing department had been buying advertising space in local business magazines at considerable cost. For example, a local business magazine with a circulation of 30,000 readers may sell a full-page ad for as much as $3500. The ad cannot reply to questions, give advice or directions to lost people, or provide any services.

A bike team can do all of those things. To reach 600,000 people by advertising in the abovementioned business magazine would cost $70,000. That would put eight bike medics from our team out in the public for twelve hours a day for about fifty-two days, or every weekend for six months. In those terms, there is simply no argument. We are a bargain.

Television spots are even more expensive, yet they only run for a few seconds at a time. Considering the money we cost compared to other forms of advertising, we comprise a very small percentage of the typical advertising budget. All of a sudden, we made sense.

By now, you may be saying, "What's that got to do with a county-based EMS agency or a police department? The police department has no marketing division."

Do you have a public education department? Do you have a "D.A.R.E." program? A fire prevention division? Those are all forms of public relations programs, which are essentially the government equivalent to advertising campaigns, but they each may have a very narrow focus in terms of their audiences. Your bike team can do a lot of the same things with much larger groups of people, as well as provide the service that the public expects.

This year, our hospital is swapping our services as "in-kind" compensation for event sponsorship. Five times each year, our downtown area is closed for festivals. Vendors may rent booths to sell merchandise. Depending on location, a booth costs $500-$2,000. We have contracted to provide services at these events, and in return for being there, we get two booths in the middle of the event. That is the prime location, both in terms of our response to calls and visibility. No money changes hands, but we get the space and put up a banner. That would cost anyone else up to $10,000, yet our personnel costs will run well under half that. As a medical sponsor, we provide a service needed by the event organizers, with a value that exceeds the cost of paying our bike medics.

Another event we do is a biathlon. This event may draw 10,000 people and will get coverage on ESPN and possibly The Outdoor Network. We will get a banner at the start/finish line and several smaller ones around the staging area. It's all paid for with "in-kind" services. Again, no money changes hands. What do you think that would cost?

Of course, none of this addresses cash flow problems. In some cases, the money to pay personnel is simply not budgeted, regardless of how good the deal looks. It's still money going out and none coming in. After all, a government agency just doesn't work like a business and we can't justify spending taxpayer dollars for advertising on this kind of scale. Government grants for "community-oriented EMS" don't exist. I can only respond to that with a story.

When we were in our second year, a retired county commissioner approached one of our supervisors. He had been attending one of the downtown events. He said "I've lived in this county for years. I served on the commission for twelve. In all the time I've been here, I have never seen county money spent on anything as worthwhile as this bike team thing. I'm so glad to see these guys out here providing this kind of service."

I knew we were popular, but that shocked even me! Don't think that won't matter when budget time rolls around. 

(C) 2002 IPMBA. This article first appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of IPMBA News.

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