The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

July 25, 2011
Near-death incident brings defibrillator issue to forefront

PK_JDEFIBRILLATORS 003.JPGA heart that stopped beating and a union grievance filing appear to have been enough to persuade the California Environmental Protection Agency to change course recently on the installation of automated external defibrillators at its headquarters.

The state scientist's union alleged that the agency stymied efforts for six months to deploy seven brand-new devices in a 25-story building that had only one other defibrillator device. Commonly referred to as AEDs, they are portable, purse-sized and battery-operated devices that provide electric shocks to help return a heart to a normal rhythm. Agency officials were hesitant to sign off on the new devices because of liability concerns.

Back-and-forth between agency officials, lawyers and employees who were advocating for these devices to be made handy boiled over last Wednesday. That was two days after a Department of Toxic Substances Control employee at his desk suffered sudden cardiac arrest, meaning his heart stopped beating.

In state buildings, it's up to individual departments whether or not they want to install defibrillators, according to Department of General Services spokeswoman Gretchen Zeagler. Some have installed them. Others haven't. No one really keeps track of the activity. In 2007, DGS and the California Emergency Medical Services Authority provided guidelines for those that do make AEDs available in state buildings. Though the DGS memo expired in 2008, Zeagler said it remains in effect until the department rescinds it, which hasn't happened.

Some state workers believe last week's incidents will convince employees in departments that don't maintain AEDs to lobby their managers to acquire them.

DTSC employees at the Sacramento field office quickly called for a defibrillator when they saw their co-worker go down last Monday, according to Chris Voight, the staff director for the California Association of Professional Scientists. Voight said the employee likely would not have survived had a defibrillator not been easily accessible.

But over at the CalEPA headquarters in Downtown, where DTSC uses seven of the 25 floors, the only defibrillator was near the bottom floor's security desk. When it was needed during an emergency on a DTSC floor last November, Voight said it never arrived. The man ended up surviving the scare, but a co-worker was concerned enough to ask for his supervisor's okay to purchase one $1,200 device for each DTSC floor. They arrived in January. About 140 DTSC employees at the CalEPA building are trained to use them.

After hearing about last week's incident and that it taken so long for CalEPA to allow the new devices to be mounted on walls, CAPS filed a grievance with the agency. The next day, CalEPA announced it would allow the AEDs to be hung at cubicles on seven floors. According to CalEPA spokeswoman Lindsay VanLaningham, the plan is to get the AEDs mounted on walls within the next couple of weeks.

State law doesn't hold liable people or companies that purchase or make available AEDs as long as each device is regularly tested, has trained individuals nearby and comes with a written emergency action plan. VanLaningham said all of that documentation wasn't received from DTSC until last week, although it's unclear if the agency asked for the information before last week.

"The agency did not prohibit this," she said. "We support the effort to ensure the safety of our employees. However...certain things need to be in place for such a program such as training, contracts, maintenance."

About 700 defibrillators have been registered with the Sacramento County Emergency Medical Services office since 2001, according to a document provided by the county. Many are at schools, sheriffs stations, gyms and a mix of private and public buildings.

But there are probably many other devices out there that have not been registered. DGS, for example, has one defibrillator on each of its 10 floors at its Ziggurat facility. About 116 of the 1,200 employees there are trained to use them. The Attorney General's headquarters has five devices among its 17 floors, according to a sign by a building elevator.

AED application on a cardiac arrest victim leads to a "moderately increased odds of survival," says the American Heart Association. Only 2.1 percent of hospital cardiac arrest victims received an AED shock before paramedics arrived, according the association's most recent survey. However, nearly all Americans recognize what the device is and what it does.

PHOTO CREDIT: Dr. Kathy Glatter of Woodland Health Care holds an AEDs (automatic external defibrillators) in Feb. 2010. (Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Sacramento Bee).

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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