"350,000 people die each year of sudden cardiac arrest," Don Vardell of the Red Cross tells CBS This Morning. He estimates that 100,000 lives could be saved by using the defibrillator in addition to cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Every minute spent waiting for paramedics to arrive on the scene lowers the chance of a victim's survival by 10 percent. CPR can buy crucial time, but it cannot restart a still heart like a defibrillator can.
"If we can get a defibrillator to a patient, a victim of cardiac arrest, before the advanced medical personnel arrive, the chances of survival are greatly increased," Vardell explains.
The Red Cross is announcing a pilot training program in 17 cities. Between March and July, the courses, which last about four and a half hours, will be phased into the Red Cross's standard CPR training for U.S. businesses in those cities.
Company employees will be taught how to defibrillate a collapsed co-worker or customer. The program will be expanded to companies nationwide in July.
Eventually, the Red Cross hopes to offer broader defibrillation training, in places like neighborhood community centers.
Workplace training can protect the most people, because 130 million Americans work each week and many spend the majority of their waking hours on the job, according to the Red Cross. One study suggests that cardiac arrest is most common Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.
Cardiac arrest is not a heart attack; it's worse. Without warning, the electrical signals that regulate the heart go haywire and the heartbeat stops. Victims pass out almost immediately. One in 20 survives.
CPR gets oxygen to the victim's brain while help is summoned, but only a jolt of electricity can restart the heart. Defibrillation within four minutes is most successful; after 10 minutes, it usually fails. In many places, like traffic-clogged cities, high-rises with slow elevators, and remote rural areas, paramedics just can't get there in time.
The first of several versions of portable defibrillators began selling in late 1996, and not all paramedics carry them. Experts have focused on getting more paramedics and police, who often beat ambulances to an emergency, to have them as standard equipment. Some large corporations have trained security guards to use the devices, and airlines, shopping malls, and amusement parks have begun buying them.