Defibrillators: Southwestern Ontario’s largest school board lags others in the region equipping its schools with the devices

By Hank Daniszewski, The London Free Press

Proven lifesavers, they’re easy to use, low-maintenance, can fit in a backpack and only cost about $2,100.

They even talk to you, with an automated voice telling you how to use them.

But Southwestern Ontario’s largest school board is lagging well behind most neighbouring boards in the region when it comes to equipping its schools with defibrillators, medical devices used to revive heart-attack victims.

Only seven of the Thames Valley District school board’s 130 elementary schools and nine out of 27 high schools in the London-based board have the devices, known as automated external defibrillators, or AEDs.

Now, with civic and provincial politicians urging it to act, the Thames board is feeling the heat.

The latest call for the board to embrace the technology has come from area MPP Jeff Yurek, the opposition health critic at Queen’s Park. He’s posted a public letter to Thames board chairperson Matt Reid, urging the school district to get moving on a policy to install AEDs in all schools.

“The inaction by the school board has created a gap in the safety for our children,” Yurek, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London, says in the letter.

Yurek introduced a private member’s bill in the legislature that led to the passing in 2015 of Ryan’s Law that allows students with asthma to carry their inhalers in school. The move followed the death

of a 12-year-old asthmatic boy, Ryan Gibbons, who succumbed to an apparent attack at an elementary school in Staffordville in Elgin County, unable to get to his breath-restoring inhaler.

Yurek said he hopes the Education Ministry and school boards will take the lead on defibrillators. He isn’t planning a private bill to require AEDs in all schools — yet.

“That may be next step. Other boards have taken action on AEDs and Thames Valley may be behind the curve on this,” he said.

In the wider London area, the situation is a patchwork quilt in the region’s six school boards.

None appear to have passed formal policies to buy and install the AEDs, but some have been much more active in working with donors.

The Avon Maitland, Lambton Kent and Huron-Perth district school boards have AEDs in all their schools, mainly donated by outside agencies.

The London District Catholic school board has AEDs in 45 out of its 55 schools.

The St. Clair Catholic District school board has AEDs in both of its high schools but in only two of 26 elementary schools

Ontario’s Education Ministry is taking a hands-off approach, saying the installation of defibrillators is up to individual boards.

“School boards are responsible for developing their own policies and procedures, and for developing and implementing school health and safety policies and initiatives,” said ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin.

Jay Loosely, who heads education programs for Middlesex London EMS, the area paramedic service, said many school boards and municipalities took advantage of a government program, know as PAD, that was delivered through the Heart and Stroke Foundation and funded AED installation in public spaces such as arenas and schools.

Loosely said the London District Catholic board took part, but the Thames Valley board did not.

Middlesex-London EMS helps schools and other facilities install and maintain the AED units, although Loosley said maintenance and training needs are minimal.

Last year, in the Middlesex-London area, the AEDs were used 10 times though none at a school.

In eight of the 10 cases, the patient was revived.

The AEDs distributed by the EMS only require periodic checks and the replacement of the battery and chest pads every two years at a cost of $120.

Heart attacks among school children may be rare, Loosely said, but school gyms are routinely used for community sports and events.

“They should be everywhere,” he said of the devices. “They should be as accessible as fire extinguishers.”

The Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations passed a motion in 2015 asking the provincial government for a law making AEDs mandatory in public buildings, including schools.

Reid said he doesn’t know why the Thames Valley board didn’t participate in the Ontario PAD program.

He said the board is open to donations, but has to ensure all the AEDs are quality units that operate in the same way, and that training and maintenance programs are in place.

Municipal councils in Thames Centre and Zorra Township have passed motions urging the Thames Valley board and all school boards to develop policies to install AEDs in all schools as soon as possible.

Similar motions are expected to come up before the Middlesex Centre and Woodstock councils.

The push by politicians came after a principal in West Nissouri elementary school, in Thorndale, near London, declined a donation to buy an AED for the school.

The donor, Connor Aarts, was a witness when 15-year-old Andrew Stoddart collapsed while playing soccer at a field next to A.J. Baker public school in Kintore, west of Woodstock.

Stoddart received CPR from spectators, but later died in hospital.

Thames Valley superintendent Lynne Griffith-Jones said the donation from Aarts wasn’t large enough to buy an AED, and the principal had to approach the home and school association for the rest.

She said the association at West Nissouri has agreed to pay for an AED, and it should be installed in a few days.

The board passed a motion last year to develop a policy on AED installation, which will come before a board committee in March.

Since 2009 the board has had an internal policy that it’s up to parent groups to fund and request the installation of an AED in a school.

Reid said the controversy over the West Nissouri donation has helped focus attention and improved communication.

“This has brought clarity and everyone understands the position of the board,” he said.