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Pandemic has left interfering with defibrillators deadlier than ever

Rebecca Daly explains why it is now more dangerous than ever to tamper with an AED due to COVID-19. 

Photo by Rebecca Daly.

Automated External Defibrillators are medical devices used to deliver a shock to the heart in cases of cardiac arrest. It can be the difference between life and death for some. However, these defibrillators can often be stolen, damaged or vandalised, leaving those in emergencies to do without. 

In normal pre-COVID circumstances, volunteer Community First Responders groups would be dispatched by the National Ambulance Service in the case of an incident of cardiac arrest. Especially in rural Ireland, they can arrive at the scene before an ambulance does. The responder would then begin basic life support including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) followed by the use of an AED prior to the arrival of an ambulance.

Due to the outbreak of the virus, not only have the Community First Responders been stood down since March but the use of CPR as we’ve come to know is now also advised against. Responders or bystanders of an incident are being encouraged to wear masks and to use a hands-only method of resuscitation such as chest compression, but this is not completely without threat. 

John Fitzgerald, chairperson of the Community First Responders, said, “The actual mechanics of pushing on someone’s chest and releasing it can cause air to come out of a person’s mouth so if you’re in a confined area you could potentially be contaminating yourself or somebody with you.”

When sudden cardiac arrest occurs, the heart can often remain in a certain quivering rhythm called fibrillation. This can last for about eight to twelve minutes with no blood pumping. This is seen as the window of opportunity to start CPR and use an AED to get the patient’s heartbeat back to normal before the arrival of an ambulance.

According to Fitzgerald, it is estimated that approximately 5000 out-of-hospital incidents of cardiac arrest occur every year in Ireland. With the use of both CPR and an AED up to three minutes into the attack, the patient will have up to a 70% chance of survival.

CPR restrictions as a result of the virus have made it more important than ever to have a functioning publicly accessible defibrillator. 

AEDs are widely available in most towns and cities across the country, but they often get damaged, vandalised or even stolen. There have already been a number of reports of broken or missing devices this year so far, with the most recent one in Letterkenny on September 22nd.

It is not yet an offence to deliberately tamper with a defibrillator, despite its potentially fatal consequences. The Life Saving Equipment Bill 2017 was drafted in response to this in July of that year. It also covers damage to lifebuoys. Senators Keith Swanick, Diarmuid Wilson, Robbie Gallagher and Paul Daly first initiated it, but it was backed by Carlow County Council last January. The bill received cross-party support before it went to the Seanad. 

A spokesperson from the Department of Justice said, “At the Second Stage Debate on the Bill in Seanad Éireann, the Government indicated that the legal advice received by the Department was that, as drafted, the Bill would require considerable amendment in order to address all of the practical and legal concerns raised.”

The bill was later abandoned with the spokesperson saying, “[It] lapsed on the dissolution of the last Dáíl and would need to be brought forward by the sponsoring Senator for reinstatement. The scheduling of Private Member’s Bills is a matter for the Oireachtas and the Department has no function in the matter.” 

While the offence of criminal damage could also cover the act of vandalising a defibrillator, the Private Member’s Bill was created directly in response to the concern that tampering with an AED could result in someone losing their life. 

This bill is not the only thing that could prevent the destruction of these devices. Fitzgerald feels that education is essential. He said, “We don’t lock up extinguishers and we don’t alarm them. Everybody knows what a fire extinguisher is and how key it is to saving somebody’s life and generally they’re not messed with. We need to be at the same place with lifebuoys and AEDs.”

Senator Diarmuid Wilson has confirmed he plans to re-introduce the bill to the Seanad in the current session.  Robbie Gallagher has also confirmed that they have been doing some investigation into re-introducing this bill. 

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