U installs public defibrillators to guard against sudden heart attacks

Eric Swanson

Following a national health-care trend, the University’s Department of Emergency Management is installing dozens of portable defibrillators on campus for public use.

Defibrillators are medical devices designed to restart the normal beating of a heart in the event of sudden cardiac arrest. The device supplies an electric shock meant to realign erratic electrical pulses in the heart.

“(Defibrillators) can restart a heart, CPR cannot,” said Judson Freed, the former University emergency management director who helped implement the plan. “If you use them, people live.”

Defibrillators were already installed at sports facilities. Last year, a completed campus survey found other areas where there was a risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

It found Coffman Union and Morrill Hall, among others, at the top of the list of buildings with exceptional needs, said Lisa Matthews, University emergency management director.

“We wanted to pick buildings where large public gatherings and older individuals are,” Freed said.

Of more than 75 defibrillators on campus, 68 are new this year, one of the largest public-access defibrillation efforts in the country, Freed said.

Each defibrillator costs the University approximately $3,000, putting the total price to more than $200,000. Freed said the University received a state grant for a portion of the cost, leaving the rest for the Emergency Management Department.

None of the recently placed defibrillators have been used so far. Emergency professionals have used similar devices to save individuals on campus twice, but both incidents occurred before the implementation of this plan.

According to emergency management, one person every 90 seconds, or 1,000 people each day, suffers from sudden cardiac arrest in the United States. Most are not revived.

Proponents of the plan said other universities are purchasing defibrillators for similar plans.

Mary Newman, executive director of the National Center for Early Defibrillation, said all 50 states have Good Samaritan laws protecting untrained people’s use of defibrillators.

“There have never been any lawsuits for using a defibrillator, but there have been several lawsuits for not having one at all,” Newman said.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Bowling Green State University and the University of Ohio, among others, have all recently implemented similar plans, on much smaller scales. Ohio is the closest to the University, with 20 defibrillators on its campus.

Kim Miller, risk management director for Bowling Green State University, said it has 15 defibrillators on campus.

“We thought it made sense to have them on campus,” Miller said. “We haven’t had a situation where we’ve needed to use them. The risk of a lawsuit seems to be higher for not having them.”

Experts and manufacturers said defibrillators can be used by just about anyone. They often cite an example of a 9-year-old boy who correctly used a defibrillator to save a life at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

“(Defibrillators) talk to you, telling you exactly what to do,” Freed said.

The Emergency Management Department has also trained people who work near the defibrillators, adding to their effectiveness and ensuring a correct response in emotional situations, Freed said.

“We call it Buttonology 101: How to Push a Button,” Freed said.

Professionals and manufacturers usually recommend training on the specific defibrillator that might be used, but say training is not absolutely necessary. The University made sure police, emergency professionals and buildings all have the same defibrillator model to limit problems with its use.

“Ideally, you should have training, but it’s better to use it than not use it,” Newman said. “With sudden cardiac arrest, the person is already dead. Using a defibrillator can only help.”