While the old first-responder standbys used on victims of sudden cardiac arrest - chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth stimulation - still have their place, cardiopulmonary resuscitation has gone high-tech.
Automated external defibrillators, commonly called AEDs, have come into wide use in La Plata County. They come in a package about the size of a school lunchbox and contain a computer that knows if an electrical shock is required - and applies one if it is.
"Our goal is to place 300 AEDs throughout the community," said Barbara Lawson, secretary of Heart Safe La Plata, the nonprofit that finds homes for AEDs. "But we won't stop if there are additional sites that want them."
Heart Safe has placed 203 AEDs in La Plata County and a few places in San Juan County. So far, 2,253 people have been trained to use the AED, Lawson said. Recertification - required every two years - boosts the number of training attendees to 3,395, she said.
Defibrillation, the use of an electrical charge to halt irregular heartbeats so the organ can regroup and establish its normal rhythm, is not new. It was demonstrated on dogs before the turn of the 20th century in Europe and first was used on humans in the United States in about 1947.
Early defibrillators plugged into a power socket, souping up 110-volt alternating current and applying it with electrodes to the bare chest. The newer models, with the computer brain, take stock of the heart's electrical workings and only administer a shock when necessary.
Heart Safe La Plata was organized under the La Plata Emergency Medical Services Council in 2003. Southwest RETAC (Regional Emergency Medical and Trauma Advisory Council) provided $12,600 for seven AEDs and operator training. The units were designated for Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad stations and trains.
Joining the railroad later in taking portable AEDs and training personnel were schools, hotels, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, backcountry and river outfitters, golf courses, rural homeowner associations, churches, sports clubs and businesses.
All La Plata County law-enforcement agencies except the Durango Police Department have AEDs. The La Plata County Sheriff's Office has 19.
La Plata County emergency dispatchers have a list of all community AED locations. A 911 call can trigger a telephone request that a trained AED operator take the device to the scene of the emergency if he or she can arrive before professional paramedics.
After the initial distribution of AEDs, Heart Safe received a grant - $100,800 for each of three years from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration - to continue its work.
A half-dozen organizations nationwide received similar grants, but Heart Safe apparently is the only one still doing its thing.
Other AED grant recipients spent it differently, Lawson said. One group hired a full-time administrator and distributed AEDs free, she said. The money soon was gone.
"We require a buy-in - the recipient of an AED has to pay half the cost," said J.T. Coyne, the Heart Safe program coordinator who organizes training sessions and lines up teachers. "We train six people at each AED location free, but we charge for retraining."
The price of an AED has dropped, Coyne said. Early versions cost $6,000, compared to $1,800 today.
Coyne, a retired U.S. Navy officer who ran field hospitals for the Marines for 30 years, has an AED on his front porch near Breen. In an emergency, precious time would be saved compared with awaiting the arrival of an AED from the Fort Lewis Mesa fire station.
"We get asked, 'How do you do so much with your money?'" Lawson said.
Sponsors help, Lawson said. The City Market Cares Program that contributes designated value-card savings to various recipients is set to buy an AED. The High Noon Rotary Club has donated money for two AEDs. The deadline for applying for one is today, but the applications of stragglers surely will be accepted, she said.
The AED program has won recognition. The International Association of Fire Chiefs awarded Heart Safe La Plata its 2009 Heart Safe Community Award.