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Best-trained first responders reduce cardiac arrest deaths

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NEW ORLEANS -- By training firefighters to be medical first responders, New York City doubled its cardiac arrest survival rate in the past 10 years, researchers said Monday.

A study found that the city saves 9.7% of the most savable victims -- cardiac arrest patients who are seen going into collapse and who need a shock to restore their heart rhythm. The national average save rate is 6% to 10%.

''Our system did a great job dropping response times,'' says Neal Richmond, deputy medical director of the New York City fire department and lead author of the study reported at an American Heart Association meeting here.

New York's survival rate has improved dramatically since it studied its lifesaving performance in 1991; then, it saved 5.3% of these victims.

A USA TODAY investigation showed last year that 1,800 lives could be saved nationwide each year if big cities reached the 20% survival achieved by Houston, San Francisco and others.

In a separate presentation, researchers reported that Dallas emergency responders reduced their percentage of unrecognized cardiac arrests from 28% to 19% using three simple questions that enabled 911 dispatchers to better diagnose cardiac arrests.

The questions were designed to help dispatchers distinguish between patients whose breathing signaled cardiac arrest and those gasping for air for other reasons.

A patient who is unconscious, immobile and gasping may be experiencing agonal breathing, literally a last gasp from a respiratory system no longer getting nerve signals from a blood-deprived brain.

But dispatchers and first responders often assume the person hasn't had cardiac arrest. ''This problem seems to be worldwide,'' said Ahamed Idris of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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