In 2000 a group of nine EMS providers from Boston and Worcester EMS in Massachusetts made a spur-of-the-moment decision to ride their bicycles to the annual National EMS Memorial Service in Roanoke, Va. Although it was all last-minute, the outcome was so successful that the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride (NEMSMBR) was born the following year.
“Once they arrived at the memorial service that year, people couldn’t believe they rode their bikes all the way from Boston to Roanoke,” says Brian Shaw, current president of NEMSMBR. “Several other EMS personnel followed along in vehicles. Other than that, they began the trek without much support or planning. But they did it and had a wonderful time. Along the way they also stopped to visit several other EMS agencies.”
There was so much interest in repeating this feat the following year that the same group officially formed the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride. They also opened it up to providers and participants from outside the Boston area.
Twenty years later NEMSMBR is still going strong honoring EMS personnel across the country. The nonprofit organization has since expanded and now organizes and implements five long-distance bicycling routes in different parts of the country each year. Coordinators for each route oversee finances, logistics, operations, and planning of the national events. Last year more than 400 riders participated.
“Many people want to be involved with the memorial aspect of our organization,” says Trish Jubinville, public information officer for NEMSMBR. “They also want to try to cycle as a way of improving their health and mental fitness. As an organization, that’s one of our main goals: to inspire those individuals to improve their lifestyle.”
The original route still begins in Boston and covers 550 miles over seven days. It continues to end at the National EMS Memorial Service, which for the last two years has been held in National Harbor, Md. Next year it will move to Crystal City, Va.
“We’re considered a no-drop type of event,” says Shaw, who was a participant in 2012 and joined the board in 2015. “If you’re an Olympic cyclist, you can participate. If you haven’t been on a bike since the sixth grade, you can participate, and we will do everything we can to get you through the routes.”
Jubinville began riding with NEMSMBR in 2012 and joined the board a year later. She says it takes a pure grassroots efforts to pull off the events each year.
“As we’re talking about this organization’s longevity, I feel it’s impressive that it has been operating as a complete volunteer organization spread across the country,” she says. “None of us on the board of directors are or have ever been professional event planners or sporting event coordinators. The board of directors has always been served by volunteer individuals in the EMS industry or closely related to the EMS industry.”
Shaw agrees and adds, “From riders and support personnel, these events are more than just people getting on their bikes and pedaling. There’s a lot of work, and we couldn’t do it without our support people who carry our luggage and provide food and snacks, directions, and repairs on bicycles.”
Honoring the Fallen
This year there are 78 EMS honorees. For each route dog tags are printed for each one. Two dog tags are distributed to each participant, both riders and support personnel, who will carry those dog tags with them throughout the week.
“At the end of the route, we ask the participants to reach out to the family of that fallen EMS provider and present one of the dog tags to them, along with a little note about what it meant riding for their loved one throughout the week,” explains Shaw. “In some instances we actually get to meet the families along the routes. We actually get to hand those dog tags to them personally, which is just a great emotional event.”
Many participants have kept the extra set of dog tags from every year they’ve participated, notes Shaw. “They remember every little thing about those. Many times you don’t know the person whose dog tag you’re receiving, but in some way, shape, or form, you learn about them throughout the week.”
A Typical Day
Each day of the ride begins with breakfast at or near the hotel, accompanied by a morning route briefing, including any route-specific safety concerns and weather forecast. Two or three participants will have the chance to share stories about their honorees—some of whom they have known personally, some of whom they have never met.
After breakfast riders prepare their bicycles for the day, making sure tires are properly inflated, brakes function, and water bottles are full. Support personnel finish loading trucks and set out before the riders with assignments designated by a logistics coordinator.
The ride then begins, sometimes under police escort, sometimes open touring at the rider’s pace. A support vehicle follows the last rider and checks for those who may be fatigued, have mechanical issues, or just need a break.
During the day there are rest stops—some optional, some mandatory, such as lunch. Riders are required to check in with a designated support person. At some rest stops are the family members of honorees.
At designated stops, usually lunch, names of the fallen are read, followed by a moment of silence and a ringing of bells. After rehydrating, refueling, and relief, the riders head back on the road.
At the end of the day, riders check into the destination hotel with a sponsored dinner to follow. After dinner they can socialize with fellow participants, make repairs to their bikes, and get some sleep in preparation for another long day.
People who have participate do so for many reasons, according to Shaw.
“Some are there for the physical challenge, to say they rode their bike 500-plus miles,” he says. “Some like it for the scenery and the beautiful things you get to see on a bike.”
Others participate because they’ve experienced a loss—somebody they were close with, whether it was a family member in EMS or a coworker who may have passed in the line of duty or from some other health complication.
“They’re there to honor them,” Shaw says. “Sometimes we say that we will never understand the pain that family and friends go through from the loss of a loved one. Some of these participants find it therapeutic in sharing their physical pain with everyone else’s emotional pain.”
This year’s first four events were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be held virtually from Sept. 19–27, 2020. Registration via the “Virtual Route” section at www.nemsmbr.org.
“At the current time our West Coast event [Reno to San Francisco, Sept. 21–26] remains scheduled, and we’re continuing to work with the state EMS offices in Nevada and California and watching the ongoing pandemic,” says Shaw. “In fact, we’ve already had several new and long-term participants who were planning on other routes this year now planning to concentrate on the West Coast.”
Jubinville says despite the earlier cancellations, participants wanted to remain involved.
“In the EMS industry right now, people are adapting to a different world,” she says. “We’re all transitioning toward a new way of doing what we’ve been doing.”
She adds a virtual event is exciting for what it potentially brings to the organization.
“We often struggle recruiting new participants because they’re just overwhelmed with the idea of long-distance cycling and being away from home,” she says. “A virtual format will help entice them to participate. This is going to become a new way for individuals across the country to get their toes wet with us, learn who we are, and feel like they’re a part of what we’re doing.”
Shaw adds, “While it’s heartbreaking we can’t be together with everyone, we know it was the right call and the virtual event is going to be successful. We plan to have social media participation and see the participants virtually. We’ll still get to read the names of the honorees. That’s primarily what this event is about: honoring our EMS providers who have passed away. It’s an emotional event—emotionally straining and emotionally rewarding.”
For more information, visit https://nemsmbr.org/.
Sidebar: National EMS Memorial Bike Ride Timeline
2001—The first ever National EMS Memorial Bike Ride, which later evolved into the East Coast Route.
May 2007—Established Kentucky Route.
June 2010—Established Colorado Route.
September 2013—Established the West Coast Route beginning in Reno, Nev.
November 2013—Granted public charity organization status by Internal Revenue Service.
July 2015—Established Midwest Route in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
May 2016—Kentucky Route became Southern Route with new start location in North Carolina.
May 2020—COVID-19 pandemic cancels in-person routes.
Sept. 19–27, 2020—Virtual Route dates.
Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer and social media consultant from Pittsburgh, Pa. He makes his living writing about health, law, social media, and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @danielcasciato.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction in the start date of the NEMSMBR. It has been corrected to 2000 from 1999.