Principals sounded alarm over defibrillators after boy’s death
Dozens of principals with Ottawa’s largest school board flagged potentially serious problems with defibrillators in their schools months after the death of an eight-year-old boy who went into cardiac arrest during recess, CBC News has learned.
Their concerns, including missed inspections, insufficient training and expired or inaccessible devices, are detailed in the results of a board-wide survey obtained by CBC through a freedom of information request.
Eight-year-old Griffin Martin’s heart stopped beating while he was playing with friends during recess on the morning of Feb. 24, 2017.
His school, Orleans Wood Elementary, did not have a defibrillator on site. A CBC investigation found it was just one of 78 Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) elementary schools without a defibrillator.
Unlike in other provinces, schools in Ontario are not required by law to have Automated External Defibrillators, also called AEDs.
Family ‘absolutely shattered’
While it’s not known whether quick access to an AED would have saved the boy’s life, his parents launched a campaign to equip all schools with the devices.
‘We have a right to expect higher standards. We send our kids to school 200 days a year with the assumption they’ll be safe.’ – Damien Martin
”Our family has been absolutely shattered by this,” said Damien Martin, Griffin’s father. “We have a right to expect higher standards. We send our kids to school 200 days a year with the assumption they’ll be safe.”
On May 1, more than two months after Griffin’s death, the OCDSB sent a survey to the principals of all 151 schools, including high schools, middle schools and elementaries. Its purpose was to “determine the feasibility, including installation needs, and any necessary training” on the devices.
According to the board some principals had requested defibrillators following Griffin Martin’s death, so the survey was also a means of determining which schools had AEDs and which didn’t.
Requests from principals
The survey results showed a total of 69 OCDSB schools had defibrillators, while 82 did not. Sixteen principals of schools without the devices directly appealed for them in their responses to the survey. (Most, but not all of the respondents’ names were redacted from the survey results obtained by CBC.)
“We would like to have one at Manor Park. Our school is used regularly in evenings for adult sports and we are also a polling site for elections and have a high number of elderly people in the school during these times,” wrote the elementary school’s principal.
“Between the two OCDSB Outdoor Education Centres, 25,000 students (not including rentals) will visit these outdoor classrooms this school year,” wrote Kevin Wallace, coordinator of the centres, which were included in the survey. “To ensure student safety, an AED should be installed.”
Of those principals whose schools already had defibrillators, more than one-third reported that required monthly inspections were not being carried out, or that staff had not been trained to carry out the inspections.
Among those was Crystal Bay Centre for Special Education, home to nearly 100 students with moderate to profound developmental disabilities.
‘If somebody does go into cardiac arrest we want a machine that works, not something that’s basically a paperweight.’ – Marc-Antoine Deschamps, Ottawa Paramedic Service
“No training has been provided since the initial installation years ago,” that school’s principal commented in the survey. “Many staff including chief [custodian] have changed since that time…. New chief has received no training.”
“From your survey, now I wonder…who should be inspecting it monthly?” asked the principal of Elmdale Public School.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, monthly inspections involve checking to make sure a defibrillator’s battery is charged and pads are attached, that it’s not damaged and that it hasn’t expired.
It’s a process Ottawa paramedics say takes less than a minute.
“If somebody does go into cardiac arrest we want a machine that works, not something that’s basically a paperweight,” said paramedics spokesperson Marc-Antoine Deschamps. “So inspections are extremely important.”
Staff training lapsed
Several principals also raised concerns that school staff either needed to be re-certified to use the devices in a medical emergency, or had received no training at all.
“Staff who were trained indicated that the training was over 4 years ago and they do not remember how to use [the defibrillator],” responded the principal of Charles H. Hulse elementary school.
The principal of Fielding Drive Public School pointedly responded that the board had refused to cover the cost of annual defibrillator training.
“This course expires each 12 month period and training staff is very costly if the school… is setting it up,” wrote the principal. “I have a student with a [condition] and we have paid for 5 to 8 staff to be trained each of the last 3 years. When I asked for central funding I was denied.”
The four-hour training course costs approximately $45 per participant and includes CPR instruction. Paramedics said although training is not mandatory to use a defibrillator in a medical emergency, it does help many users feel more confident in what can already be a highly stressful situation.
AEDs set to expire in 2018
The survey revealed at least three schools whose defibrillators were actually in nearby community centres, prompting concerns about access during a medical emergency.
More than half of the defibrillators currently in OCDSB schools are set to expire in 2018, the survey showed, while at least one, at Agincourt Road Public School, had expired two months before the survey was distributed.
“Please add another AED unit to our school, as this September we have a [student] joining our school who is medically fragile with [a condition and] could suffer heart failure during a seizure or at anytime, according to parents and medical team etc., and emergency usage of AED may be required until paramedics arrive,” wrote the school’s principal.
Then there are the schools that received defibrillators, but never installed them.
“In some cases the units hadn’t been installed,” said Mike Carson, superintendent of facilities for OCDSB, in an interview.
Initial rollout rushed
Carson said when the board received the first AEDs as a donation five years ago, administrators may have underestimated the amount of maintenance and training involved, and may have rushed their installation.
“The initial installation rollout really didn’t capture all of the complexities of it,” said Carson. “I think we all could have done a better job communicating with people why they were there, what’s involved in the maintenance.”
‘I think we all could have done a better job communicating with people why they were there, what’s involved in the maintenance.’ – Mike Carson, OCDSB
Since CBC brought the issue to light in October, the OCDSB has promised to install defibrillators in all its schools. However that’s not expected to happen until the end of the school year in June 2018.
Carson said chief custodians have been told they’re in charge of carrying out monthly inspections, and the board recently signed a contract with Ottawa paramedics to oversee the maintenance of the devices in case those inspections turn up problems.
The board also plans to provide “regular” staff training, but it’s not clear when that will occur.
Meanwhile Damien Martin says it’s clear the board has more work to do.
“If you’re going to put them in you’ve got to do it right,” Martin said. “My son [may have] died because of a lack of an AED at the school. That can’t happen again. That is the potential impact of not taking it 100 per cent seriously.”
While the board sorts out its response to the tragedy, the Martins have already donated 13 defibrillators to OCDSB schools through his own campaign.
Among the schools to receive one of the devices from the Martins was Orleans Wood, where their son Griffin died.
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