Community members lobbying for Chester Township to join their neighbors in the Borough and the Mendhams in installing defibrillators around town are hoping a new law can remove a stumbling block.
The Good Samaritan Law absolves those trying to help save a life of responsibility if they cause injury while attempting to give aid. Up until now this did not extend to a person owning or using an automatic external defibrillator during a cardiac arrest. A pair of bills about to hit the floor of the senate mean to change that.
An automated external defibrillator is a portable device that is used to restore heart rhythms to patients in cardiac arrest. It automatically analyzes the heart rhythm of the patient and advises the user whether or not a defibrillation is needed to return the patient to a normal heart beat.
"The old law required more governance and oversight, and left the person using the AED responsible," said JoAnne Babbitt, the Vice-President of the John Taylor Babbitt Foundation, a Chatham based charity that fundraises to purchase and donate AEDs to public entities throughout New Jersey. "We found we were trying to give them away and people weren't taking them because of liability concerns."
Over in Chester, Wendy Hurdman was running into similar roadblocks trying to equip her community with devices. While Chester Borough recently approved two outdoor AEDs for the downtown area and the three schools now have seven incremental units with three portable units dedicated to the sports teams for home and away games or band/club competitions, Chester Township has not committed as they decide on appointing medical oversight.
"This law will lift a big weight in terms of liability for the layman once communicated," said Hurdman, a longtime recreation coach. "Hopefully soon we'll be able to adequately protect Chubb Park, Black River and Highland Ridge fields."
Hurdman believes the fundraising will be the easy part, based on her experience in the community. "Once we obtained Board of Education approval we raised enough funds via PTO fundraising and a generous Chester Lions Club donation in just two months," Hurdman said. "Chester and Mendham are very lucky to have supportive communities and receptive individuals in local government and Board of Educations willing to do the right thing to do even with laws still pending."
Those pending laws, Senate Bill S852 and Assembly Bill A832, were passed unanimously by both the New Jersey Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee and the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Services Committee. The bill would provide immunity from civil liability to any lay person who uses an AED and fails, in good faith, to request emergency medical assistance as soon as practicable. It would also provide immunity to the organization that has acquired the AED. The bill, S852, would eliminate language in current law that requires that a person using an automated external defibrillator to have received training in both CPR and the usage of the AED. The bill would also step down current requirements that entities require CPR and AED training for all people who might use the AED to just the people most likely to use the device.
"AEDs are designed to walk someone who may never have used the device through the steps to safely save someone's life. Current devices speak the instructions, step-by-step, and will only recommend a shock if there is no heartbeat. The person basically has to be dead," said Babbitt, who has spoken at presentations with Hurdman and many other places around the state to get support for AED placement. "The only way you can hurt someone with this device is if you pick it up and hit them over the head with it."
The Mendhams will have 23 AEDs in the community, and according to Hurdman, that is thanks to Dawn Nutt and her team at the Junior Womens Club. "Dawn is my counterpart in Mendham and she and I are both supporting Janet's Law which is also on the table in Trenton," Hurdman said. "It would require public schools, recreation fields, and youth camps to have automated external defibrillators for youth athletic events."
According to the Cleveland Clinic, if a heart in sudden cardiac arrest is defibrillated within the first minute, there is a 90 percent chance that the patient will survive. Survival rates decrease 10 percent for every minute a person in SCA waits to be defibrillated. Due to a lack of access to AEDs, currently only five percent of people in sudden cardiac arrest survive. Early defibrillation is the most critical step for survival.
"There are some schools and towns out there still in need of their first AED," Hurdman said. "This is basic safety equipment much like a fire extinguisher. It can save a life."