The shocking truth: Anyone can save a life with a defibrillator

Thousands die from cardiac arrest every year – but wouldn’t need to if more defibrillators were available. No-one in the workplace should be more than two minutes away from one. Fire and Safety Centre explains how having one can save a life, and offers a range of models. Buying one could save a life near you…

Cardiac arrest kills tens of thousands of people in the UK every year – and that number would have included Ryder Cup golfer Bernard Gallacher if he hadn’t been treated with a defibrillator when it happened to him. And because he was able to make a complete recovery afterwards, he began the Bernard Gallacher Defibrillator Campaign to raise enough money for a defibrillator to be made available in every golfing venue throughout the UK and Ireland.

That’s a big ask, with more than 2,500 machines needed to meet the target, but it will add to a growing network of defibrillators up and down the country not only in golf clubs, but also in schools, community halls and leisure centres.

Defibrillators in the workplace are also becoming increasingly common too.

What is a defibrillator?

But what is a defibrillator? How does it work? And what is defibrillation? Let’s start at the beginning, by explaining when to use a defibrillator, and why it’s necessary.

A defibrillator (often known as an AED, which stands for automatic external defibrillator) is used specifically in cases of cardiac arrest – not a heart attack. They’re different things. Cardiac arrest happens when the heart stops pumping blood around the body because it has lost its rhythm. Victims will be unconscious, and they will not be breathing properly. Having lost its rhythm, the heart flutters or ‘fibrillates’. The process of replacing the ‘fibrillation’ with a regular rhythm – known as defibrillation – is achieved by delivering a controlled electric shock through the patient’s skin; that’s the job of the defibrillator.


How does a defibrillator work?

The defibrillator plays two important roles. Machines look different, but perform essentially the same function no matter if it’s a Zoll defibrillator or one from Heartstart or Lifepak.

Firstly, when placed on the patient, it monitors the heart rhythm.

Secondly, when it detects ‘fibrillation’ it will deliver a controlled electric shock.

An automatic machine will check and shock on its own; a semi-automatic one will instruct someone helping the patient to trigger the shock. Both types of defibrillators are available from the Fire and Safety Centre.

But a defibrillator can only work if it’s available, and that puts the onus on those running public buildings and, as far as workplaces are concerned, on employers.

It’s recommended that no-one should be more than two minutes away from defibrillators in the workplace; sound advice considering how long we spend there. That two-minute window is an important one; the longer its takes to deliver that all-important electric shock, the smaller the chance of the victim’s return to full health.

Defibrillator training

It’s clearly an advantage to have seen one in action if you need to use a portable defibrillator in the workplace, but defibrillator training is not essential. Clear instructions about how to use a defibrillator are included in the equipment, and, because it checks the heart, there’s no danger of delivering a shock to someone who doesn’t need it.

The machine decides when to use a defibrillator, so you don’t have to! That said, some defibrillator training will remove the nerves of someone helping a casualty for the first time. Specialist courses offering defibrillator training are offered by private companies as well as St John Ambulance.

What to do whilst waiting for a portable defibrillator

And finally, if someone near you does go into cardiac arrest, don’t wait for someone to fetch the equipment. As every minute passes, the patient’s chances of survival diminish, so you’ll need to start manual CPR whilst someone else calls 999 and fetches the portable defibrillator.