Sunday, September 1, 2002

A Lifesaving Procedure Districts on deadline for defibrillators

By Jason Molinet

September 1, 2002

Automated external defibrillators save lives. But a number of school administrators still are working to comply with the new state law mandating that the machines be present at all public schools and athletic events for grades 4-12.

Although Education Law section 917 goes into effect today, several districts across Long Island are scrambling to purchase AEDs, train staff and ensure the devices are strategically placed for quick access. The law allows a three-month extension, giving Long Island's 102 school districts as well as the rest of the state until Dec. 1 to comply, and several administrators have said the extra time is necessary.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. George Pataki with much fanfare during Northport High School's graduation ceremony June 27, the culmination of a grassroots push by the Louis J. Acompora Memorial Foundation.

The portable devices, which cost $1,800 to $3,000, are designed to restore a regular heartbeat via an electrical shock to the heart after cardiac arrest. An AED could have saved the life of Northport freshman lacrosse goalie Louis Acompora, who died in March 2000 after being struck in the chest with a ball.

"In a sad way, it's bittersweet to see it come into law," said John Acompora, Louis' father. "Quite honestly, I never thought this would happen two years ago. Two years ago, no one ever heard of a defibrillator."

Schools already had begun to embrace the device before the state made it mandatory. According to an April survey compiled by Section XI, Suffolk's athletic association, 27 of the county's 57 school districts had at least one AED. Eighteen more districts indicated they planned to acquire defibrillators by the new school year. Section VIII, Nassau's athletic association, did not have statistics available. Northport spearheaded the push with 36 of the life-saving machines mounted on walls at 10 buildings districtwide, including 11 AEDs reserved for athletics.

"Long Island was ahead of the game because of the unfortunate death of the Northport student," said Nina Van Erk, executive director of the state Public High School Athletic Association. "That raised awareness. But districts would have benefited from having more time. The timing was very tight."

Freeport athletic director Bob Zifchock said he was one of several administrators convinced of the need for AEDs after attending a Nassau safety seminar featuring the Acomporas in April 2001. Freeport now has 17 AEDs.

The law, however, does not apply to private schools, which are not members of NYSPHSAA. Bro. Kenneth Hoagland, chairman of the Nassau-Suffolk CHSAA, said it will be left to each school to address the issue. "Certainly our schools will look into it," Hoagland said. "Each school has to make that decision."

Long Island Lutheran, a small independent school in Brookville, has one defibrillator on campus. Athletic director Gary Proce said, "I think it's foolish if you don't comply."

Island Trees was one of many districts to file for a waiver until December. Athletic director Steve Connell said he needs time to enact an emergency action plan and train staff while the district cobbles together the funds to purchase 10 AEDs. Because school budgets are submitted as early as December for the following year, many districts didn't set aside funds to start a defibrillator program.

"Where is the money coming from?" Connell said. "That's the real question."

Resources and tips on setting up a defibrillator program are available at the Acompora Foundation Internet site: And financial relief is on the way to some Suffolk schools. State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) will help underwrite the cost of defibrillators and training with $3,500 grants to each of the 39 school districts in the First Senate District, which serves the Town of Brookhaven and the entire East End.

"The Senate is always reluctant to pass an unfunded mandate," said Margaret Rothwell, LaValle's executive assistant. "But the health and safety issues here are so strong."

Another problem administrators are grappling with is the language of the law, which calls for strategic placement of the devices, and for full coverage of all athletic practices and games. Other factors, such as the size of the school and whether to purchase pediatric defibrillators, cloud the issue.

"There's real science that shows the faster you get the unit applied to a victim, the more effective they are," said Stuart Cherney, the team physician at Stony Brook University and a member of a Section XI committee examining how the new law should be applied. "So in an ideal world, they're on every sideline."

Westhampton added four defibrillators, and athletic director Rich Schaub, a CPR instructor, supervised the certification of coaches and security personnel. While Schaub believes Westhampton is following the spirit of the legislation, he's not sure if the school fully complies with the letter of the law.

"I don't know if you can put a definitive number on how many you need because there are so many variables," Schaub said. "But four is better than none."

"I'm sure the law will only help," said Hempstead athletic director James McClellan, whose district purchased 15 AEDs. "The idea is to be in compliance. And everyone wants to be on the safe side. No one wants to see that tragedy happen again."

Then there are the complexities of training. Who should be certified, and are they willing participants? "The simple part is getting AEDs in the building," Northport athletic director Bob Christenson said. "The more complicated part is getting the staff trained to use them. Because the tragedy happened here, we've had well over 200 staff get the training, from the superintendent to the coaches. And well over 140 students have been certified."

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