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Static Spark sets Patient on Fire in Back of Connecticut Ambulance

Steve Waldrop, ESD Journal
January 27, 2004

Editorial Note: Even with the minor reporting information in on this case, we believe this problem may have been caused of a static spark from the EMS Technician to the defibrillator. The charging of the technician during his rescue attempts may have left him with a high potential that discharged to the defibrillator at the wrong time. Ambulances with oxygen rich atmospheres especially in the winter need to be evaluated for electrostatic hazards and EMS technicians need to be trained in the reduction of ESD.


New London, CT. - First Ran in "The Day" — While rescue workers struggled to restart a woman's heart in the back of an ambulance what appears to be a static spark to a defibrillator ignited a fire that burned the patient's face and clothing.

Police reports said that 47 year-old Brenda Jewett was pronounced dead at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. The fire was quickly extinguished by the EMS personnel and no other injuries were reported.

The husband of the deceased woman, Harrison Jewett, said that she was not breathing when the ambulance arrived. The cause of death is expected to be determined by an autopsy. Local officials have asked for an investigation into the fire. We at the ESD Journal believe that the fire should be investigated from an electrostatic point of view.

Defibrillators are devices that deliver electric shocks to a patient's bare chest to jumpstart stopped hearts. They have proliferated in recent years to combat cases of sudden cardiac arrest. The machines are found in schools, with police, in airports and other public places and have been seen as universally safe.

“I've been in this business 20 years and I've never heard of something like this,” said Leonard Guercia Jr., director of the state Emergency Medical Services. In fact, Mary Newman, executive director of the National Center for Early Defibrillation in Pittsburgh, said she has no record of a defibrillator ever sparking a fire. We at the ESD Journal believe that the spark may have went to the defibrillator not FROM the defibrillator.

“I'm concerned about it,” said New London Fire Marshal Calvin Darrow. “All the equipment –– the ambulance ... the defibrillator –– needs to be tested. I think it needs to be looked at to make sure it doesn't happen again.” We at the ESD Journal believe the static environments of all ambulances needs to be evaluated and the EMS technicians trained in the reduction of electrostatic discharges.

When Mr. Jewitt noticed that his wife had stopped breathing and was slumped over on the living room couch he immediately called 911. Within minutes rescuers were on the scene and placed Brenda Jewett into the back of the ambulance and hurriedly left for the hospital emergency room.

Fire Marshall Darrow said that, once inside the ambulance, a paramedic and two other crewmembers worked to save the life of Brenda Jewett. As oxygen was pumped into her lungs, one of the rescuers reached for the defibrillator. The electric shock sparked a fire. (we at the ESD Journal beleieve this could this be static related.)

The ambulance stopped and crewmembers put out the blaze with an onboard fire extinguisher and tossed the oxygen tank out the back of the ambulance.

Dr. Vincent Mosesso Jr., the National Center for Early Defibrillation's medical director, said that defibrillation can cause superficial skin burns that leave red marks on a patient's skin. He downplayed the role that oxygen could have played in sparking the fire, maintaining that thousands of defibrillations have been given to patients on oxygen.

However, Mosesso did say that if Brenda Jewett's skin was particularly wet and the pads that administer the shock were too close together, an electric current could potentially jump through the air and not into her chest. That, in turn, could ignite a fire.

“I think right now it is more of a freak incident and it shouldn't dissuade people from using them,” Mosesso said in a telephone interview. “It's a procedure that's done very frequently every day ... around the world.”

The National Center for Early Defibrillation says it doubts either the machine or the fire killed Jewett. A spokeswoman said that a person who needs a defibrillator is "already dead," and that using it "can't make them any worse off than they are."

The continuing investigation in the fire shows the woman's death was not contributed to the fire.



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