BATON ROUGE, La. -- When a middle-aged man collapsed while working in his front yard in St. Amant two years ago, volunteer firefighters used a portable automatic defibrillator to save his life.
Once attached to the man, the heart shocker automatically diagnosed and zapped his malfunctioning heart back to a normal rhythm, buying critical time for paramedics to arrive.
Mike Breaux, the St. Amant volunteer firefighter who led the response, says just about anybody can use an automated external defibrillator, or AED, even with little training.
"You can't go wrong because it tells you what to do step by step," Breaux said.
Despite a push to make AEDs widely accessible in public places, many school systems, businesses and government buildings in the Baton Rouge area still do not have them.
Advocates of the devices, including the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association, are trying to convince government agencies and private businesses to put more AEDs in places where large groups gather. They contend that easy, quick access to the devices will save lives.
A study presented last month at an American Heart Association conference looked at the effectiveness of both AEDs and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, which is using one's hands to pump a victim's chest and giving mouth-to-mouth breathing assistance.
The study found that CPR combined with bystander use of an AED more than doubled the chances of surviving out-of-hospital cardiac arrest compared with using CPR alone.
While a few hours of instruction are recommended, AEDs are simple enough to be used by an untrained bystander. The devices use voice commands and diagrams to tell the user exactly what to do. Once attached to the patient, the computerized device determines whether a shock or cardiopulmonary resuscitation is needed.
The devices, about the size of a laptop computer, typically cost $1,500 to $2,000. Few state and federal grants are available for the purchase of AEDs, state officials say, and most of that money is dedicated for rural areas where the devices are scarcest.
Russ Remmert, assistant director of health and safety services for the local chapter of the American Red Cross, coordinates the sale of AEDs to businesses and public agencies. Remmert said potential buyers often cite cost as the main obstacle to purchasing AEDs.
"There's a lot of people interested in them, but they're just saying, 'Where am I getting the money from?'" he said.
Dr. Myron Weisfeldt, chairman of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and lead investigator of the AED study, said in a press release that businesses and public agencies should reassess the cost of an AED program.
"When you compare that to the cost of other safety measures required by law, such as seat belts in automobiles and sprinkler systems to help control fires in buildings, my own conclusion is that it's not an enormous expense," he said. "We do many things in the name of public safety that are much more expensive than what a community-based AED program would cost."
Determining the number of AEDs in public places is a difficult task because no federal, state or local agency keeps a database of who has the devices.
Several area businesses, including the Mall of Louisiana and the Mall at Cortana, have installed AEDs.
"We take them to all our calls, any kind of slip-and-falls or anything like that," said Bob Harrison, director of Allied Barton Security at the Mall of Louisiana, which has eight AEDs.
Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, following a national trend, installed six publicly accessible AEDs in its terminal this year, spokesman Ronnie Pickard said.
LSU has placed several of the devices at first-aid stations in Tiger Stadium. Some campus police officers carry AEDs in their vehicles. State law also requires LSU and other universities with sports teams to keep AEDs in their athletic departments.
In Louisiana, the most common public place where AEDs are found are health clubs with more than 50 members, which have been required under state law to have the devices since 2004.
To comply with the health club law, the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission has 12 AEDs at its fitness centers and pools. BREC, however, does not have any of the devices in its gyms or community centers.
Spokeswoman Kristi Williams said the agency is looking for funding to buy more of the devices for those buildings.
"We'll go through grant writing, our budget, capital outlay, you name it," she said.
In the meantime, she said, BREC trains all of its full-time staff and park rangers in CPR and the use of AEDs.
Few devices in schools
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system has four AEDs in its administrative buildings but none in its schools or athletic facilities, spokesman Chris Trahan said.
The East Baton Rouge schools are not alone; neighboring systems do not place AEDs in their schools, either.
In Ascension Parish, St. Amant Fire Chief James LeBlanc, one of the most vocal advocates of public AEDs, led a fundraising effort to buy several devices for schools.
LeBlanc said he has collected enough private money to buy two AEDs, but school officials have asked him to hold off on the purchases while they sort through liability issues surrounding the devices.
"We're ready to purchase AEDs and put them in the schools," LeBlanc said. "But we're just sitting and waiting on the administration."
LeBlanc said his volunteer firefighters have responded to several calls related to heart problems at schools in the past year. He said school nurses could use the AEDs if necessary to shorten the response time, a critical factor in surviving cardiac arrest.