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N.C. sheriff’s office tests nation’s first AED delivery by drone

The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and Duke University have partnered for a four-year program on drone response to cardiac arrest patients

By News & Record

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Building on the county’s experience using drones as first responders, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and Duke University are partnering to see if drones can help save the lives of people experiencing a heart attack.

The sheriff’s office said the program would be the first of its kind in the country and would involve using a drone to deliver a device called an automated external defibrillator (AED) to the scene of a cardiac arrest.

The drone can get to the patient faster than an ambulance, the sheriff’s office said. Where it might take 10 to 12 minutes for the EMS to get to the scene, a drone can cover the territory in two to five minutes.

The sheriff’s office started using drones for some first responder duties in 2022. That year, authorities shared that they had used a drone to identify a man who was forbidden to contact a woman by a restraining order, and on another occasion had used a drone to check up on a deputy who was not responding to his radio after making a traffic stop.

The sheriff’s office is partnering with the Duke Clinical Research Institute and Hovecon, a local consulting firm working on unmanned aircraft systems, on the AED project. The effort is funded from a $3.5 million grant working here and in James City, Va. The grant was received by Dr. Monique Starks, a cardiologist at Duke, and is paid for by the American Heart Association.

The sheriff’s office said the program to deliver AEDs by drone is already in use in Sweden and has had significant success.

The concept is for the AED drones to be strategically placed around the county. AEDs are already located in many office buildings and public buildings, according to the American Red Cross. The device can analyze the heart’s rhythm and if needed deliver an electric shock to help the heart re-establish its proper rhythm.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that an AED drone program in Sweden worked by having a volunteer trained in using the AED dispatched to the place where someone had experienced a cardiac arrest. The volunteer used the AED brought to the scene by the drone to revive the patient.

The sheriff’s office said that here, Hovecon will make sure the drones comply with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

The test program will be carried out during a four-year period, but officials said that before any drones actually fly with AEDs on board, there will be a chance for government and community leaders to give input, have their questions answered and get their concerns and recommendations dealt with.

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said the drone program will allow his office, Duke University and Starks to “create and do the unimaginable.”

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