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According to the American Red Cross, sudden cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. The condition, in which the heart suddenly stops beating, can happen at any age with no warning signs in otherwise healthy people. Most people who experience cardiac arrest die within minutes.
Calling 9-1-1 and administering CPR as soon as possible is the best way to improve a victim’s odds of survival, but coupling that with the use of an automated external defibrillator, or an AED, can further improve the chance of survival.
In short, an AED is a portable medical device that analyzes the heart. When necessary, such as during a cardiac event, it sends shocks into the heart to restore its natural rhythm.
Although it’s encouraged, formal training isn’t required to use an AED. The devices come with instructions, and are often found in public places.
Sources: The American Heart Association, heart.org; the American Red Cross, redcross.org
It takes emergency responders between four and six minutes to respond to a 9-1-1 call, said Jeremy Metz, division chief of EMS at West Metro Fire Rescue.
In the event of a sudden cardiac arrest, where the heart unexpectedly stops beating, those four to six minutes are crucial to a person’s odds of survival. Most people who experience sudden cardiac arrest die within minutes, according to the National Institute of Health.
That’s why local fire districts are working to better equip the public for just such an emergency. First, they encourage people to receive CPR training. The quicker someone receives CPR during a cardiac event, including the minutes before paramedics arrive, the better the odds of a good outcome.
There’s also a second line of defense — automated external defibrillators, or AEDs. In addition to CPR, the devices help save lives by sending electric shocks into the heart to restore its natural rhythm.
Denver metro fire districts and departments have sought to raise awareness around the use of AEDs in recent years.
“I’m seeing a dramatic increase of people installing AEDs in their businesses and public areas,” Metz said. “Just the AEDs side of things alone has made a profound difference in public safety and saving lives.”
This awareness effort includes the North Metro Fire Rescue District, which in 2000 received a grant that helped the district place AEDs in Broomfield and Northglenn recreation centers, and in police patrol cars. In 2015, the district began offering free CPR courses as well.
“Since the program’s inception, we have trained hundreds in our community on CPR and AED use,” said Sara Farris, a spokeswoman for the district.
In an email interview, Farris explained the national survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victims has risen from the 1990s to about 10 percent. She credited much of the change to CPR and AED use.
Although CPR training is strongly encouraged, she added, the public doesn’t need special training to use an AED.
“The great thing about the AED machines is that they instruct bystanders through each step of CPR and how to use the AED. If the victim doesn’t need to be defibrillated, then the machine will let the bystander know so the victim will not be erroneously shocked,” Farris said.
At the community level, AEDs are often found in public places, like malls or businesses. In the south metro area, Castle Rock serves as one example.
The Castle Rock Fire and Rescue Department recently provided the Outlets at Castle Rock with two new AEDs and trained the security staff how to use them.
That adds to the already plentiful supply of the devices across town. Castle Rock has placed AEDs in all town buildings, recreation centers, county buildings and in each police car, Fire Chief Art Morales said.
“They’re roving throughout the town so the most important thing for people to do is to call 9-1-1 in the event of a cardiac event and then send someone to see if they can access an AED,” Morales said, also stressing the use of CPR.
That could be right in their office building, or across the street, if they’re close to a town facility, he said. Farris recommended employers who provide an AED for their office make sure staffers know where to locate the device and how to use it.
“There wasn’t a big distribution of them around,” Morales said of AEDS in previous decades. “It’s probably in the last 10 years that AEDs have really caught on.”
AEDs may be prevalent in local communities, but departments are also utilizing technology to ensure the public knows doesn’t just know where an AED is located, but also when an AED is needed.
West Metro Fire Rescue, and three other agencies use an app run by PulsePoint, according to Metz. PulsePoint’s goal is to build the most comprehensive registry of AEDs, although it isn’t available in all Denver metro areas.
Residents who do live in a PulsePoint service area can upload a photo and the location of public AEDs to the app, which the district verifies, Metz said. The app displays each AED on an interactive map so residents can pinpoint the closest AED to them.
The app is also connected to their dispatching software, Metz said. Users trained in CPR can receive a notification when there is a cardiac event in a public place within a quarter-mile of them, so they can hopefully provide immediate help.
Overall, emergency personnel need community support, Metz said, to help improve survivability rates for cardiac arrest.
“Finding someone in cardiac arrest is a scary and high-stress event. Anyone who is going to act to help someone should first consider their surroundings to ensure that they are not entering a harmful environment, potentially becoming another victim,” Farris said. “However, early CPR is the best chance a person has to survive a cardiac arrest and good Samaritan citizens are key in this link of the survival chain.”
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