Skip to content

Why don't more B.C. schools have life-saving defibrillators?

There is no legislated requirement to provide AEDs in K-12 schools in B.C.
An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a portable electronic medical device used on a person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, a condition where the heart unexpectedly stops beating.

A North Vancouver School District (NVSD) document shows that an elementary school without an automated external defibrillator (AED) on a day that it was needed last June was under consideration for one of the $2,000 life-saving devices in 2022.

Neighbours rushed to help Christopher Michael Collens when the 75-year-old collapsed June 7 while walking his granddaughter to Dorothy Lynas Elementary. 

“AEDs are critical to restart the heart and the parents that came to the aid of this man who had a cardiac arrest outside this public school in North Van did exactly what we would have wanted them to do — call 911, do CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), find an AED,” said Mary Stambulic, director of policy and systems change for the B.C. and Yukon Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

“They did go to the school expecting that an AED would be there and there wasn’t. We can't really say at this point whether or not it would have saved that man's life, but another thing that AEDs also do is they act as a CPR coach. So even if his heart wasn't in a shockable rhythm, it could have helped them with doing CPR at the time, and we know that doing CPR is incredibly critical.”

A 2022 NVSD proposal, obtained under the freedom of information law, called the devices “sophisticated, yet easy to use” for laypeople with minimal training. Officials were pondering last year whether to spend $20,000 to $56,000 to expand AEDs beyond North Vancouver’s secondary schools. 

The $20,000 first option contemplated buying AEDs for 10 sites, including Dorothy Lynas, Cheakamus Centre outdoor school, Education Services Centre (ESC), Ridgeway, Queen Mary, Highlands, Lynn Valley, Westview, Lynnmour and Carisbrooke. The $56,000 second option would have equipped 28 schools, buildings and facilities. Maintenance would have cost an extra $180 annually per site, under both options. 

Last June, NVSD went ahead with three additional units, for ESC, Cheakamus and the maintenance yard. 

Trustee Kulvir Mann, who was NVSD chair for the last two years, referred an interview request to communications manager Lisa Dalla Vecchia, but she refused to arrange an interview. 

"The school district phased in defibrillators at all seven of our secondary schools during the 2018-19 school year,” Dalla Vecchia said by email. “They are not installed in our elementary schools. While AEDs are not a required piece of equipment under WorkSafeBC regulations, given the health, safety and well-being of the school community is a top priority for the school district, we do regularly review our health and safety plans and processes and update them as needed.”

In April 2017, New Westminster School Board decided to spend $30,000 to install them across the district. Fourteen of its sites in the Royal City, including seven elementary schools, three middle schools and one secondary, have AEDs.  

Two years later, in July 2019, an AED saved the life of 14-year-old Alex Gomez in the Surrey Sports and Leisure Centre. That prompted his mother Esmerelda Gomez to petition the Surrey School Board, which responded by installing units in all secondary schools and four other sites, including the Bell Performing Arts Centre. The program cost Surrey $82,217 in the 2020 budget year.

“It's the largest school district in B.C., we're very thankful that the Surrey School District has decided to place AEDs in their schools,” Stambulic said. “Maybe this will entice the Vancouver School District to do the same.” 

When the Vancouver School Board considered AEDs in 2018, it decided to stick with providing them to individual students that are medically required.

"There is no legislated requirement to provide AEDs in K-12 schools in B.C. The B.C. Ministry of Education and Child Care, B.C. Provincial Health Office, and the Vancouver Coastal Health recommend student-specific AEDs for known elevated risk students only, not AEDs in all schools,” said VSB communications manager Jiana Chow. 

Chair Victoria Jung, who was elected in 2022, did not respond for comment.

In March 2018, the school board didn’t support spending an estimated $441,000 to install AEDs at all sites. A staff report deemed the cost too high and risk too low because less than 1% of sudden cardiac arrest victims are school-aged children. 

Richmond School District also has no AED program. 

The North Vancouver tragedy should be a reminder that school-deployed AEDs are available to more than just the students, Stambulic said. School buildings and grounds are used for community sports and meetings at night and on weekends and sometimes act as polling stations for elections. 

“They are at the hub of the community. It is an ideal place for an AED, especially if it's located on the outside of a school, because then that way it's available 24/7,” Stambulic said.

In 2022 research, Li Danny Liang of the University of Calgary Department of Emergency Medicine recommended that AEDs be installed outdoors for retrieval by drivers and pedestrians. 

“The systematic deployment of AEDs at schools and community centres in urban neighbourhoods may result in increased application and be a cost-effective public health intervention,” Liang concluded. 

Why aren’t defibrillators as common in public buildings as fire extinguishers? 

A week after the tragedy near Dorothy Lynas Elementary, daughter Michelle Collens, the City of Vancouver’s sport hosting manager, expressed bewilderment on social media that AEDs are not mandated in B.C. 

“I thought all public places had to have them,” Collens wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I don't blame this, but I never want anyone running for help to have that crushing feeling dash their hope when they are told it's not there. Those seconds matter.”

In 2013, Manitoba’s government made AEDs mandatory at public facilities. Ontario passed its defibrillator registration and public access act in 2020. But B.C. is dragging its feet. 

In 2019, 2022 and 2023, BC United health critic Shirley Bond unsuccessfully tabled private member’s bills calling for a B.C.-wide AED mandate in public buildings.  

During Question Period last April 20, Bond noted that Premier David Eby directed each of his ministers, in writing, to seek out, foster and champion good ideas, regardless of their origin. 

“But so far, those are just empty words,” said Bond, who was a health and education minister under the BC Liberal government.

“British Columbians have no idea why a bill that has the potential to save lives, has broad support and has been introduced multiple times in this legislature is stubbornly refused by this premier to be called [for debate].”

Eby didn’t answer. Health Minister Adrian Dix was non-committal. Dix said he is “strongly committed to a network of AEDs across B.C.”

For now, there is a useful, but limited, work-around. BC Emergency Health Services promotes the PulsePoint Respond app. When someone reports a cardiac arrest in a public place to 911 and paramedics are dispatched, app users with CPR training are also notified and given directions to the nearest AED. 

“Sometimes I just take a look and see where the AEDs are in my area. But the key is that they have to be registered. Right now, registration is not required. It's all voluntary,” Stambulic said.