Aussie state first to trial life-saving new street feature

While holidaying in New Zealand I noticed a large yellow box in the street, something I hadn't come across in Australia.

Taking a closer look, I realised it was a defibrillator. "What a cool idea," I thought. So simple, yet so lifesaving. Why hadn't I seen it before?

Doing a bit of research, I came across a recent Australia-first trial by St John Ambulance Victoria in one of the state's deadliest suburbs for Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA).

A photo of three locals posed around a defibrillator outside Reservoir Neighbourhood House.
Victoria is the first state in Australia to roll out street defibrillators as part of a trial by St John Ambulance. Source: Supplied

Being one of the leading killers, I was shocked the device for SCA, which electrically shocks the heart to the right rhythm, wasn't already more readily accessible here.

In Australia, 28,000 people suffer from SCA a year, and average survival rates are less than 10 percent, dropping even more since the pandemic.

Now that the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir has gained 28 public defibs as a result of the community program launched in March, they're Australia's most concentrated amount in one place. The defibs are available 24/7 and are within 400 metres of people's homes in the area.

For more of an insight, I reached out to the CEO of St John Ambulance Victoria, Gordon Botwright, who told me that despite 80 percent of cardiac arrests happening in the home, it's the most unlikely place for a defib to be, because it's "an expensive medical device that the average home is not going to be able to afford".

Without one there, people have to anxiously wait for an ambulance to come, which can reduce survival rates from cardiac arrest to 27 percent.

But access to a public defib can significantly increase that to 50 per cent. And even more to 70 percent with both CPR within the first three to four minutes and the use of a defib. So really, the solution seems obvious.

But what if I don't know how to use a defibrillator?

Having zero experience in first aid, I doubt I will be useful in an emergency situation which is slightly nerve-racking. However, as part of the initiative in Reservoir, people will actually be taught first aid and how to use a defib. Part of the trial includes 3,000 free nationally accredited CPR courses for Reservoir residents, as well as informal training opportunities for 18,000 residents including schoolchildren.

Not having been taught first aid at school (or at least if I did it wasn't memorable), teaching children practical knowledge like this seems to be a brilliant idea.

Will I hurt someone if I use it wrong?

Mr Botwright mentioned that a concern raised by community members is accidentally injuring the person while using a defibrillator, but he told me that this is not an issue.

"The reality is no you won’t injure the person, you will in fact likely save their lives," he said. "So don’t be fearful of it, the devices will tell you what you need to do, they all have voice prompts, follow that even if you’ve never been trained before and never used one before."

"And if the machine detects that it can’t actually defibrillate a person and it therefore could harm them the device will just not activate."

What's the difference between SCA and heart attacks?

Before looking into SCA I didn't quite know the difference between that and a heart attack, which was something Mr Botwright found in the community.

A photo of the CEO of St John Ambulance Victoria, Gordon Botwright, presenting to community members. Another photo of a couple volunteering to have a defibrillator installed outside their home.
Christine and her partner are volunteering to have a defibrillator installed outside their home. Source: Supplied

"It's really important that we get the message out that it's not a heart attack," he said. "It's a different cardiac problem which is an electric problem with the heart that stops it pumping effectively and getting the blood circulating, as opposed to no blood getting into the heart at all, which is where you get a heart attack."

"Yes, a heart attack can turn into SCA but SCA occurs without warning, which is why it's so deadly as people are seldom prepared for it."

What has the community feedback been like?

As a result of this trial, thousands of people have been educated and happily so.

"The amazing thing about the pilot is how the community has gone around it," Mr Botwright said. "People are happy for us to place defibrillators outside their homes so they don’t necessarily have to be on the nature strip, which is somewhat problematic getting council’s permissions."

He also mentioned that the organisation are "aware of a defibrillator being used quite early on in the program and saving a life".

People also talked about the need for defibs from personal experience. "We spoke to a lady who lost her friend in one of the council housing areas and how it would’ve saved her life if the defibrillator would’ve been there, which is why she wants to support the program," Mr Botwright said.

After Reservoir is done and dusted, St John Ambulance Victoria will move on to other deadly suburbs for SCA, like Dandenong, Werribee and Cranbourne.

And then, if successful, St John hopes street defibs will be declared mandatory by the government and eventually rolled out nationally. This will increase bystander use of defibrillators to 50 per cent by 2025.

"The real driver that would really help it ignite is if we could get either federal or state funding so that we could roll it out much quicker," Mr Botwright said.

To me, this initiative seems like a given if it's going to curb deaths and I'm hopeful the rest of Australia will one day also benefit.

Do you have a story tip? Email:

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.