Could this be the safest village in Ireland?


SAFETY:First responders in a small Co Limerick community are providing invaluable service in the neighbourhood

Over 80 people in the west Limerick parish of Athea have been trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Some 27 of them, further qualified to use a defibrillator and administer oxygen, can commit to being at your door with life-saving skills and equipment in less than eight minutes. People in this rural community of some 500 houses, can literally trust their neighbours with their lives.

“It all started in 2008,” says resident Roger Byrne, who is a former CPR trainer at Kerry General Hospital. When he and Athea GP Dr Kieran Murphy decided to come together to share their skills with their community, there was no shortage of interest. “People came forward from the Fishing Club, the Gun Club, the Credit Union, the GAA, the local pubs, nurses, farmers – it was a mix of everyone from the community,” says Byrne. In a village where the nearest ambulance is sometimes more than 45 minutes away, it was about taking care of their own.

Raising money locally for training and equipment, two years ago, Athea Community First Responders was launched. With nationally recognised Irish Heart Foundation and Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council (Phecc) qualifications under their belts, these volunteers now provide an on-call service to neighbours in trouble from 6pm to 8am Monday to Friday and from 6pm Friday to 8am Monday, 365 days a year. “There have been seven call-outs over three years, and several of those were heart attack-type events,” says Byrne. “In one instance, an individual received a stent in less than three hours. So these are fairly significant incidents.”

Athea First Responders have also started to work alongside the HSE West ambulance service. “That means that if somebody phones 999 the ambulance service knows there is a responder service here, says Byrne. On a number of occasions, the ambulance, en route to a heart attack, stroke or breathing difficulty incident has contacted us, asking us to go to the scene.

“The 2006 national ambulance strategy says you should expect an ambulance to be 45 minutes away. All responses we’ve had in the village so far have been between three and five minutes,” he says.

Sharon Reidy completed the basic CPR course four years ago and is now a fully trained first responder. She attends a refresher training course every 90 days.

The parish is split into zones, with a number of responders in each zone. The responder in charge of the phone receives a call detailing the nature and the location of an incident. They then use special text commands to indicate to the group which two responders will go to the scene to start CPR. Another, having picked up the defibrillator from its perch on the village Credit Union wall, is instructed to follow on.

“There was one Sunday where we got a call from somebody in the last house in our zone. They rang with suspected heart problems and the first responder was there in less than five minutes,” says Reidy. “He was just over the road. Myself and another responder got there with the defibrillator before the ambulance.”

Knowing the lie of the land means these volunteers often know exactly who is in trouble, and how to get there fast. When Reidy herself had a severe asthma attack, she experienced the value of the service first hand.

“I was here at the house and I just couldn’t catch my breath,” she recalls. “I knew there was oxygen in the first responders’ bags so I got [my partner] Pa to ring.

Within five minutes, three of her fellow first responders were there. “You panic, but they were able to relax and calm me. I lost it for a few minutes but they brought me around and helped me to relax and told me the ambulance was coming. They were there for me.”

She encourages others to get involved.

“I’m just an ordinary person with an ordinary education. Anyone can learn this skill. It’s a vital skill for a mother or a father or for anyone. It can be a matter of life and death.”

Brigid Sinnott is a life-support co-ordinator with the Irish Heart Foundation. Sinnott says there is increasing emphasis on community training, as about 60 per cent of cardiac arrests take place in the home.

“About 75 per cent of sudden collapses are in a shock-able rhythm and your best chance of survival is having CPR and an automated external defibrillator (AED) shock within eight minutes of collapse,” says Sinnott. “It’s very difficult for an ambulance to get to rural Ireland in less than eight minutes, but if someone local can start compressions, the chance of survival is doubled.”

Using a defibrillator increases survival rates further still but buying the equipment alone is not enough, warns Sinnott.

“People are inclined to think by getting an AED and hanging it on the wall, they will be saved; they won’t. They must know CPR.

“People say they will buy eight AEDs and train six people, but that’s wrong. Just buy one, set a radius around you and train as many people as you can because the quicker you can start basic CPR, the better the chance of survival.”