A fairly new, high-tech tool is helping paramedics with some suburban fire departments treat patients in cardiac arrest.
The electronic AutoPulse Resuscitation System mechanically performs the chest compressions that are a key part of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Although one paramedic still needs to pump air into a patient's lungs, the battery-operated machine -- resembling a torso-sized backboard -- frees a second rescuer from what's traditionally a two-person job.
Using a wide band stretched across a patient's chest, it performs strong, steady compressions -- thus pumping blood through a patient's body -- until the machine is deactivated.
Ambulance crews with the Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District, Vernon Hills-based Countryside fire district, Libertyville Fire Department, Waukegan Fire Department, Lake Forest Fire Department, Lake Villa fire district and Oak Brook Fire Department are among the first in the state to use the device.
Provena St. Joseph Hospital in Elgin has some, too.
"It's an incredible piece of machinery," said Lincolnshire-Riverwoods firefighter/paramedic Jim Spicka. "(It) does such better compressions. The guys love it."
Lake Villa Rescue Deputy Chief Aaron Bernau has been impressed with the device's ability to consistently perform regular CPR in conditions that would be difficult for a human rescuer, such as on an elevator or while climbing stairs.
"It's amazing," said Bernau, whose department has used its AutoPulse once or twice since acquiring it more than a year ago. "If you place (the patient on) the AutoPulse, it's on until you turn it off."
Available since 2002, the device is manufactured by Zoll Medical Corp., in Chelmsford, Mass..
Eighty AutoPulse units are used by fire departments, emergency rescue squads and hospitals in Illinois, company spokeswoman Diane Egan said.
An estimated 2,400 units are in use worldwide.
The AutoPulse is designed for adult patients or children at least 13 years old, Spicka said. Markings on the plastic board show where to position a patient, and a digital screen gives directions to paramedics.
The machine won't begin compressions if a patient isn't in place.
The AutoPulse can be set to provide continuous compressions or to stop every 15 compressions for two pumps of oxygen, which is the recommended CPR ratio.
Proponents also like that the machine doesn't get tired or distracted or has to stop to administer drugs, unlike human paramedics.
"You can go to bat that those compressions are perfect every time," Bernau said.
Some suburban fire department officials are interested in buying AutoPulse machines but haven't because the hospitals they work with haven't approved using the devices and are waiting for more clinical studies.
Connie Mattera, administrative director for the emergency medical services team based at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, said her staff hasn't allowed widespread use of the devices because early studies showed patient injuries increased after AutoPulse treatment and indicated no marked difference from manual CPR.
Other studies have been more positive.
"Research is still being conducted on the safety of this unit," Mattera said.
The cost of the machines -- local estimates hover around $15,000 each -- is a concern, too, officials said.
"If money were no object, it'd be great to have one of these on each of our ambulances," Bernau said.
Waukegan Fire Chief Pat Gallagher, whose crews have had an AutoPulse for about two years, expects use of the device or similar machines will grow.
"We believe it does make a difference," Gallagher said.
Unlike the automated external defibrillators that are now common at schools and other public facilities, AutoPulse machines are not designed to be used by civilians. Zoll has no plans to make the device available to the public, Egan said.