The importance of defibrillators

Scott Heiman — 2 July 2019
Defibrillate for life

So, you’re heading to the scrub right?  Sensibly, you’ve had your rig fully serviced before you set off.  You’ve crammed in some creature comforts, you’ve packed gear to maintain communications while on the road, and you’ve accommodated other aspects of safety including one or more First Aid kits.  But, have you packed a First Aid kit that’s tailored for the conditions under which you plan to travel, and which will assist you to deal with the specific health risks that you may encounter on the road?  

Whether we pack our First Aid kits with the minimum viable content, or pack them for the worst-case scenario, most of us probably don’t plan to carry a defibrillator with us when we travel. Specifically, we’re talking here about an Automated External Defibrillator (or AED) which is a device that detects lethal heart rhythms which stop it pumping effectively. 

Like most technology, portable defibs have been getting smaller and smaller in recent years. With a price range between $1000 to $3000, including an AED in your personal First Aid gear requires a relatively large monetary outlay. 

So, let’s consider some of the factors informing a decision around whether an individual AED is something that we really shouldn’t leave home without.

Defibrillate me

For many of us, our closest contact with an AED probably comes when we visit large workplaces, some of which maintain these devices in public areas for the use of employees in the same way that they provide fire extinguishers. Beyond this, the capacity to deal with a cardiac arrest is something that most of us probably associate only with trained medical professionals.

But perhaps it shouldn’t be

Statistics indicate that around one in 800 Australians will experience a Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) outside of a hospital.  SCA is a condition which usually occurs with a disruption in the heart's electrical activity that causes the heart to beat dangerously fast or irregularly. If not treated within a matter of minutes, most sufferers will die. But, with an AED, a responder is able to deliver a measured shock that can revert the victim’s heart rhythms so that their heart can pump effectively again. Use of an AED within three minutes raises the survivability rate to 70 per cent — with a 90 per cent survival rate if a shock from a defibrillator is administered within one minute of collapse. 

So, if there’s a one in 800 risk of suffering an SCA, should we be concerned? Or is this a situation of ‘it won’t happen to me’?  

Well, if we take a recent Federal Government initiative as any indicator, then it’s probably about time we started taking the risk of SCA seriously. Specifically, in partnership with the Caravan Industry Association, in recent months $1 million in Federal funding has been allocated towards installing more than 1000 defibs in caravan parks across the country.   

The simple fact is that, as overlanders, many of us are probably at higher risk of an SCA than other sectors of the population, simply because of our average age group. Consider this: 45 to 64-year olds comprise of one-third of all holiday makers. Half of Australia’s caravanners and campers are aged between 30 to 54 while 25 per cent are aged between 55 and 70. Add to this, the 55 plus age-group spends 44 per cent of the nation’s domestic nights in caravans and campers (22.5 million nights). So, while the vision of a Grey Nomad is a bit stereotypical, there’s definitely some truth in it.  

Who’s at risk?

The risk of SCA is most acute for people with heart disease, and it’s the 55 to 64 age group that has the highest risk of this condition. Indeed, 8.8 per cent of people in the 55 to 64 age bracket report living with heart, stroke or vascular disease with the prevalence increasing with age. Further, based on the stats, simply being male seems to increase your likelihood of SCA (men are two to three times more likely to experience SCA than women). But, before the under 55s among us start feeling too smug, consider the other factors that place individuals at higher risk of SCA. These include:

Smoking: Tobacco is associated with an increased risk of a wide range of health conditions including SCA. Despite a decrease across the nation, around 14 per cent of the adult population still smoke.

High blood pressure: Around 35 per cent of Australian adults suffer from high blood pressure and, of these, two thirds (around four million people) have uncontrolled or unmanaged high blood pressure (and are not taking any medication). While the prevalence is highest in the over 55 age group, 25 per cent of sufferers are aged between 45 and 54.  

High blood cholesterol: In a 2012 study, 5.6 million people over 18 years old had high cholesterol. The prevalence was highest among the 55 to 64-year age group where 50 per cent had high cholesterol - with 45 to 54-year olds following a close second at 45 per cent.

Obesity: Almost two in three Australian adults are overweight or obese. The incidence of overweight and obesity continues to increase with the proportion growing across all age groups over time.

Other factors that may also increase the risk of SCA include:


A sedentary lifestyle (58 per cent of Australians)

Drinking too much alcohol 

A family history of cardiac arrest

A previous heart attack

A personal or family history of other forms of heart disease

Nutritional imbalance (only 8 to 9 per cent of us consume enough fruit and vegies to meet national guidelines)

Signs and symptoms

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) symptoms include:

Sudden collapse

No pulse

No breathing

Loss of consciousness

Sometimes other signs and symptoms precede SCA. These may include fatigue, fainting, blackouts, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, palpitations or vomiting. But SCA can occur without warning.

Considered this way, the ‘one in 800 risk’ of SCA may look a little more menacing as we head into remote Australia. Especially when you realise that 30,000 Australians suffer from cardiac arrest every year. Consider too that, for every minute that passes after cardiac arrest, your chances of survival decrease by 10 per cent without a defibrillator. So maybe the $1000 to $3000 needed to buy an AED for your personal First Aid kit is starting to sound like a good investment. After all, one day your life may depend on it.


defibrillators caravans firstaid savealife safety


Scott Heiman