Road safety organisation Driver First Assist is planning to roll out low-cost defibrillators to the transport industry and beyond, reports Jack Carfrae.

Everyone has seen defibrillators in public. Airports, shopping centres, train stations, outside shops; they sit innocuously on the wall, ignored by all and sundry until they suddenly become vital.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) says 30,000 people suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests every year in the UK and, according to the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the survival rate is around 8%, which is lower than in most other developed countries.

However, a 2017 study by the NIHR claimed that figure increased to 32% with the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) and it rose to 53% for people who had a rhythm that could be treated by an electric shock.

AEDs typically cost between £800 and £2,500 according to St John Ambulance, while the BHF’s start at £975 before VAT.

However, one organisation is attempting to change both the cost of the equipment and its presence in commercial vehicles. Driver First Assist (DFA) is a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in first aid training for employees who drive for work, the idea being that the more professional drivers who are trained as first responders and know what to do if they’re first at the scene of a collision, the better the injured party’s chances.

David Higginbottom

DFA’s latest endeavour is a defibrillator that costs just £220, which it arrived at by reverse-engineering one, explains CEO David Higginbottom (pictured). “I’ve got an electronics guy and he took one to pieces and confirmed that there’s nothing in an AED that doesn’t have a universal application,” he says. “The only clever bit is the software, which measures the heart rhythm, but once it determines whether or not it’s a shockable rhythm, all it does is tell the battery to charge the capacitor, then it tells the capacitor to deliver an electric shock.”

DFA has recently completed the business plan and paired up with Italian defibrillator manufacturer AMI Italia, which can roll out the units at scale with little notice. As a result, it’s due for launch in the second quarter of this year.

Higginbottom’s goal is to “make AEDs as omnipresent as fire extinguishers”, which he believes is achievable at this price. Given his transport industry background and DFA’s existing focus on driver training and safety, commercial vehicles are an obvious place to start.

“It’s slightly smaller than a standard AED, so we’re talking about something that would fit in the back of a cab or under a seat,” he says. “The first person at the scene of an incident is far more likely to be a truck driver than anyone else. Once you’ve got gridlock, even though the traffic officers are carrying them [AEDs], they’ve got the difficulty of getting to the scene, which is made even worse with all-lane-running motorways.

“If you wait for paramedics to get to the scene, people will, and do, die. So it’s doubly important for a truck or a van to be carrying an AED, because, very often, it is a medical emergency rather than a road traffic collision or it could be an RTC caused by a medical emergency.”

The organisation is keen to get HGV manufacturers to add the unit to their parts portfolios and offer it as an off-the-shelf product, but it is also targeting buses and the home delivery sector.

“We’d like to think we can get people like the supermarkets involved,” says Higginbottom “It’s a fairly simple argument, to get them to acknowledge that they’re already a service to the community by delivering things to people – even more so during Covid.

“For them to be carrying AEDs and for everybody to know that they’re carrying AEDs, it’s great for their CSR, great for raising awareness of what cardiac arrest is and that AEDs are widely available.”