Citing an unfunded government mandate, the Derry Town Council voted to remove a provision from the revised Fire Prevention Code that would have required “places of assembly” with more than 50 people to invest in AEDs or Automated External Defibrillators.
However, Councilors also made an informal pledge to help those churches, clubs and meeting halls find the money to purchase the units.
The discussion came out of a public hearing on proposed changes to the Fire Prevention Code (see related story page 5). Fire Chief Michael Gagnon and Assistant Chief Scott Jackson presented a proposal to streamline and consolidate several chapters of the Town Code that referred to fire prevention.
In Sec. 51-10 of the revised document, the code would mandate that all new places of assembly with more than 50 people be required to have AEDs installed. However, it also would require that all existing places of assembly hosting more than 50 people be required to install the equipment within two years of the code adoption. The units would also have to be registered, according to RSA 153-A:33.
Jackson and Gagnon said the Fire Department would provide free training to organizations affected by the change, and already do provide it once a month at the Hampstead Road station.
Jackson said, “If someone dials 9-1-1, it’s good to have this on hand.”
Gagnon observed that minutes make a difference with cardiac emergencies. “The chances of survival,” he said, “go down 10 percent each minute the AED is delayed.”
Gagnon said it takes an average of 7-1/2 minutes for members of the fire staff to receive the call, start their vehicle, arrive at the venue and unload their equipment. By then the chances of survival have dropped. He, Jackson and EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Director Chuck Hemeon pointed out that people on the scene could respond even faster than the first responders if an AED were present and they knew how to use it.
“It makes sense for us to look at this, and give it serious consideration,” Gagnon said.
Jackson said the units are “intuitive and easy to use.”
“It talks you through the process,” he said.
But Councilors had questions ranging from the financial effect to liability.
Jackson assured the Council that liability is covered under statute “unless there is gross negligence.”
Councilor Jim Morgan, who owns an electronics business employing just under 50 people, expressed concern about the liability provision. “It says, ‘unless acts or omissions were grossly negligent or willful and wanton,’” he read from the proposed amendment. “Negligence could be as simple as forgetting to change the batteries.”
For a small business owner, being held liable for negligence after having a person have cardiac arrest in their facility would be “horrible,” Morgan said, adding, “It could kill a business.
“‘Gross negligence’ could be arbitrary,” Morgan said.
Council Chair Brian Chirichiello agreed, saying, “‘Liability’ is open to interpretation.”
Where does it belong
Councilors also wondered if the AED provision belonged in the Fire Code. Councilor Richard Tripp asked why it was in the Fire Prevention Code instead of in some other part of the code.
“As a life safety issue, it is under our purview,” Gagnon responded.
Jackson noted that the Fire Prevention staff visits each building once a year, and that is an ideal time to check on the AED and any issues.
Also, he said, having the AED under Fire Prevention is easier for developers. “If they’re coming into town and they’re building a new structure, we want this to be in the Fire Code,” he said.
Acting Town Administrator Stephen Daly pointed out the Council has the purview to separate the AED requirement, and put it in its own chapter.
Other Council members, including Joshua Bourdon, suggested changing the name of this section to “Fire Prevention and Life Safety.”
An undue financial burden
But Councilors and speakers in the public hearing kept circling back to whether or not Derry needed a mandate.
In the public hearing portion, resident Marc Flattes asked the cost of each AED unit. Hemeon said they have a book price of $1,200, but he added that using the state’s “bid list” would get the cost down to approximately $670.
Flattes also asked for more details about the training. “Would it be at their facility?” he asked.
Gagnon said Derry Fire can do it in three ways: sending a team to the facility, having employees come to the monthly training at Hampstead Road, or using a “train the trainer” model in which a representative of the facility would come to Derry Fire, and take back what they’ve learned.
The Rev. John Barner, pastor of Central Congregational Church, said, “I support this in theory. But for many of the smaller churches, the cost and this being mandated would be a hardship.” Barner said he has about 60 people.
But, he said, his church is about a block from the Central Fire Station, so he has no worries about an EMS crew getting there. He also has doctors and nurses in the congregation, he said.
Joe Friedman, a representative of the Brookstone conference facility on Route 111, said Brookstone would be negatively affected by the ruling. “The Fire Department does a great job, and they mean well,” Friedman said. But he pointed to the state regulations, which encourage but don’t mandate the AEDs.
Since opening in 2005, Brookstone has seen no cardiac issues among staff or guests, Friedman pointed out.
He also wondered what would happen if an employee panicked, or was insufficiently trained. “You don’t just pull this thing off the wall,” he said. “It’s not like a fire extinguisher. You are dealing with a live human being.”
There are also ongoing maintenance costs, Friedman said, concluding, “I would like to see you encourage this, but not mandate it.”
But David Dyson, a member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said a few years ago, a disc jockey dropped dead of a heart attack at a function. “This is short money,” he said. “I’d like to see it passed.”
Resident Ernie St. Pierre agreed. “The training is free, the cost is $650, you can save a life – it’s a no-brainer,” he said.
Mark Beland, chairman of the Derry Arts Council, noted that its venue, the Opera House, has an AED. It was paid for by parents of young actors in the Kids Coop Theatre, who saw a need and took care of it. Some of the parents were cardiac nurses, he said.
Beland said he’d like to see more of his volunteers acquire the skills. “I’m trained, but I’m not there for everything,” he said. “And minutes matter.”
Most of all, Beland said, “I hope we never have to take it off the wall.”
Councilor Charles Foote said he speaks frequently with small business owners, some of whom are “hanging by a thread.” Foote, who has a background in emergency services, added that he recognizes the effectiveness of an AED. But for business owners, “It’s a conflict, both financially and liability-wise.”
Resident Joseph DeChiaro suggested helping the venue owners and churches raise the money. “We see ‘Go Fund Me’ projects for all kinds of idiotic things,” DeChiaro said. “This is a minimal cost for saving lives.”
Bourdon, who has created two successful fund-raising events and biked or run in others, agreed with Foote that $650 is a stretch for many smaller business owners. He said he was willing to “lead the way” in fund-raising efforts.
“But I don’t support the mandate,” he added.
Doing a quick calculation, Morgan said it would cost $27,000 to equip the remaining places of assembly with their AEDs.
“I’ll support this if it’s non-mandated, and if we can help subsidize the remaining businesses,” he said.
But in the end, the Council determined that the provision was not needed, and voted 6-0 to remove the provision from the revised code. They also agreed informally to find ways to help smaller businesses and venues purchase the units.