On a Friday night in 2000, high school football player Josh Miller collapsed as he ran off the field. Several minutes later, the 15-year-old was dead from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). This is not an uncommon scenario in school athletics. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), SCA is the leading cause of death in young athletes and Americans in general; it claims more than 250,000 lives annually. Statistics from the American Association of School Administrators indicate that 7,000 to 10,000 young people die each year from sudden cardiac arrest.

In June 2008, U.S. News and World Report published the results of a study from HeartRhythm Journal that found that students who suffer from SCA have only a one in 10 chance of survival. Of the cases that occurred from 2000 to 2006, the overall survival rate was 11 percent, ranging from 4 percent to 21 percent per year. A majority of these incidents occurred somewhere on school property.

As schools consider the issue of SCA, they should recognize that it is an important issue not only for student athletes, but also for community members. About 20 percent of a community's population is at a local school on any given day, whether it be to drop off something for a child, attend a social function or volunteer.

When someone experiences SCA, the time for response is short. The AHA advises the optimum time for reviving individuals suffering from SCA is within three minutes of the incident. When a person has immediate access to automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), these survival rates increase by as much as 80 percent. This rate drops to 2 percent for individuals left untreated after 10 minutes.

The argument for AEDs

Local emergency-response teams are equipped with AEDs and generally are very efficient, but a number of factors can prevent a timely response. For instance, an emergency squad might be at another call, encounter traffic on the way to the school or have to climb several flights of stairs in order to find the individual. This valuable time can mean the difference between life and death.

To help increase the chance of survival for individuals who experience SCA, more schools have installed AEDs. Several states are debating whether to mandate AEDs in schools; still, many institutions do not have the devices. Facility managers can better protect the health and safety of building occupants by acquiring AEDs. In addition, they can play an important role in helping determine which AED might be best for their facility.

Some school decisionmakers have come to believe if an AED is deployed improperly, the school will be held liable in a legal suit. As a result, many schools are reluctant to acquire an AED. But recent court decisions and Good Samaritan laws have established that in most situations, an individual who attempts to resuscitate an individual with SCA, or the facility in which the incident occurred, will not be liable. Good Samaritan laws are intended to reduce bystanders' hesitation to assist for fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death. Based on recent court decisions, facilities without an AED may have greater liability exposure than those that have an AED onsite.