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Chicago area’s Metra trains getting defibrillators

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CHICAGO – The Chicago-area’s Metra commuter rail service is installing hundreds of portable, easy-to-use defibrillators on all of its trains, becoming only the second major transit system in the country to make the lifesaving machines available on trains, Metra officials said Thursday.

Defibrillators, devices that restore a normal heart rhythm with an electric shock, are required on airliners and in public places such as sports stadiums and large office buildings. But cost, lack of training and liability fears have prevented a greater proliferation of machines that advocates say are crucial to improving a dismal survival rate for people who suffer cardiac arrest.

“We’re adding something to our trains that hopefully none of us will have to use, but it’s like insurance: when we need it we want it,” Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran said in announcing the initiative at a downtown Chicago Metra station.

About 300 of the machines, known as automatic external defibrillators, or AEDs, are being installed inside Metra passenger cars on all trains throughout its 495-mile system spreading out from downtown to outlying suburbs. About 140 more will be available in Metra’s workplaces and in its police vehicles when work is finished in January. Metra staff will be trained to use them, but they will also be available for passengers to use in an emergency.

After the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co., Metra is only the second transit agency to take the step, said Metra’s marketing director, Jim Bonistalli.

The machines, made by Cardiac Science, prompt a responder with step-by-step recorded instructions and deliver a defibrillating shock automatically after analyzing the person’s heart rhythm — all without the need to push a button. But defibrillators need to be used within minutes, often before an emergency crew arrives, making their distribution important.

Over the past decade, defibrillators have become cheaper and easier to use, a trend that is crucial to making them more widely available in places where a bystander with no training can be expected to effectively operate the equipment.

Tracy Trimble, manager at a fitness center in suburban Naperville, has helped save the lives of two of her gym’s members by using a defibrillator and attended the Metra announcement to emphasize their importance.

“While it was scary and emotional while you’re in the moment, it’s an amazing experience and I was so honored to have been part of their moment of survival that day,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the AEDs. ... They’re very easy to use.”

In the United States, an average of 1,000 people a day suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, said Dr. Amer Aldeen, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Only about 8 percent survive, largely because of the limited availability of defibrillators, he said.

By comparison, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which is equipped with defibrillators, has a 65 percent survival rate, Aldeen said.

In 2009, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter trains became the first in the nation to carry automated external defibrillators, after years of campaigning by a woman whose husband suffered a cardiac arrest in 2002 on one of its trains.

That rail network now has 120 defibrillators, and three lives have been saved since their installation, said Rhiannon D’Angelo, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail, which runs the system.

The defibrillators are coming down in price and now average about $1,000. In another step to encourage their use, good Samaritan laws shield civilian responders from lawsuits.

Metra, which has serious capital funding problems, is paying for its machines with the help of a $536,000 grant from the Regional Transportation Authority. Northwestern Medicine is helping cover the cost of training and maintenance.

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