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FAA won't allow cardiac-arrest machine at traffic-control center

  • Article by: Nina Petersen-Perlman
  • Star Tribune
  • November 6, 2007 - 5:33 AM

WASHINGTON - Though defibrillators are required on all airplanes and in most airports, many air traffic controllers in the nation's 500-plus control centers would be far from the nearest life-saving device should they suffer a heart attack.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids defibrillators in centers without medical offices. Union leaders at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center in Farmington, which doesn't have a medical office, have to keep the defibrillator they purchased in the union office instead.

If one of the center's 500 employees went into cardiac arrest, someone would have to run up and down two sets of stairs and cover about 80 yards to retrieve the equipment, said Craig Boehne, the union local's president.

"Our workforce is aging," said Boehne, 43. "For me to run 160 yards and [up several] flights of stairs going there and back would take me the better part of two and a half minutes, and at that point I may be a cardiac-arrest victim."

After three minutes of cardiac arrest, irreversible brain and tissue damage occurs. Defibrillators restore a normal heartbeat by applying a brief electric shock. For every minute that goes by without defibrillation, the chance of survival decreases by 7 to 10 percent, according to the American Heart Association.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican who represents the area, sent a letter to the FAA's acting administrator, Robert Sturgell, on Oct. 10 calling the administration's refusal to incorporate defibrillators into the emergency kits at all FAA facilities "unconscionable."With modern technology, the greater risk is in not having one," he said in an interview. "It's better to have one than to not have one."

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the policy has been under review for several years. She cited liability issues when explaining why defibrillators have not been allowed in control centers without medical personnel.

"There's an issue of purchase, training and making sure the defibrillators are kept up to speed in terms of calibration," she said. "It's not just as simple as plugging it into the wall. It's something that has to be looked at from a variety of viewpoints, and that's what we're in the process of doing at this time."

Union's machine cost $1,500

Boehne said the union started petitioning the FAA in June 2006 to get an automated external defibrillator, which is designed to be easy enough for a layperson to use. Rather than wait for the FAA, the local spent about $1,500 to buy its own machine, and offered to pay for employees to be trained to use it, too, he said.

"We decided to purchase one ourselves because we didn't want to wait around for the FAA," he said. "Little did we know at that time we'd be fighting it for a year and a half. Here the defibrillator sits as we perform the maintenance on it and ensure it's in top working order."

Boehne said that he was spurred to learn more about defibrillators following the 2005 death of an air-traffic controller in Houston. The controller went into cardiac arrest, and by the time emergency medical technicians arrived 13 minutes later to shock him with a defibrillator, he was already brain dead.

Kline said he might introduce legislation to permit the equipment at all air-traffic centers if he does not receive a satisfactory answer from the FAA in the next few weeks.

Nina Petersen-Perlman • 202-408-2723

Nina Petersen-perlman • nperlman@startribune.com

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