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Southern Maryland fire and rescue volunteers rush to their stations and ride along on emergency calls every day, often putting their medical training into use to save lives. And sometimes they just come across someone in need, or someone in need comes to them.

The basic skills, and increasingly the lifesaving equipment, are available to anyone, to offer help anywhere.

At Gatton’s Barber Shop in Hollywood about four years ago, neither an arriving customer nor the staff knew that a medical emergency was imminent. Until it just happened.

“It was a very hot and humid day,” John Gatton Jr. said on a recent afternoon at closing time, recalling the June 2009 visit by a customer in his late 70s.

“He had walked a distance of about 1 mile. He sat down. We were very busy,” Gatton said, until they immediately stopped cutting hair about 15 minutes later. “One of our other customers called out to us.”

The elderly man had slumped over, and Gatton and his sister, Kimberly Sullivan, promptly began their response to help him, the beginning of a team effort that also called upon the network of resources that the public depends on when trouble happens.

“We immediately knew what was happening,” Gatton said. “I had a customer assist me in placing him on the floor.”

“I grabbed [a breathing] mask and called 911,” Sullivan said. “I went to call his name to see if he would respond. He was not breathing, and he had no pulse.”

“CPR was initiated immediately,” Gatton said.

Gatton, 48, is a past president and life member of the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department, and Sullivan is a past president and life member of the Hollywood Volunteer Rescue Squad.

“We initiated CPR, but what happened with this gentleman was a team effort,” Gatton said.

Firefighters arrived with a defibrillator, and the stricken man was shocked twice with the equipment, Sullivan said, the next phase of a medical response that had restored a pulse and had the man trying to breathe on his own by the time he left the barber shop to go to MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown and later to another care facility in the Washington, D.C., area.

Rescue squad members, a St. Mary’s advanced life-support team and a paramedic from a Maryland State Police helicopter crew also took part in the initial response in Hollywood. The other customers in the barber shop also helped out, handling the ringing telephone.

“It was a collective effort,” Sullivan said.

If the customer was going to have a medical emergency, the barber shop arguably was a good place for it to happen. “If he had been alone ... at home,” Sullivan said.

Defibrillators are becoming a more common site in public places, she said, including at school gymnasiums, firehouses’ social halls and corporate offices. And they have the technology and instructions to let anyone witnessing a medical emergency become a potential lifesaver.

“They’re designed that any bystander can use them,” Sullivan said. “It tells you exactly what to do.”

Accessing a defibrillator at some locations can trigger an alarm to emergency medical services providers, Gatton said, in the same way pulling a fire alarm brings firefighters to a scene.

But Gatton and Sullivan both said the increased availability of the defibrillators does not take the place of the value of as many people as possible receiving CPR training.

“You never know when and where a situation may arise,” Sullivan said.

CPR skills bring safety to workplace

A wide spectrum of people and professions see the value of acquiring CPR skills, said Jonathan Riffe, a co-owner of Southern Maryland CPR & First Aid Training, based in Calvert County’s Huntingtown community.

“We get everybody,” Riffe said, beginning his list with doctors and dentists. “We also get babysitters. We also get construction workers and electrical contractors. Not only do they want the training, but it’s required for [working on] some government installations.”

Training classes often are presented on site, Riffe said, including at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Riffe, a career firefighter in the District and a longtime volunteer with Huntingtown’s fire department, said the opportunity to get CPR training can bring in a full household.

“The entire family wants to be trained just in case something happens,” he said.

Riffe has put his own CPR skills to use as a health care provider with a pager, responding a year ago as “a typical bystander” to a woman not breathing at her home in Huntingtown, and earlier to a Memorial Day vehicle accident in Sunderland.

“There were three people in the car, and it was still on fire,” he said. “I just happened to come across the accident.”

Doctor’s offices are among the venues that purchase defibrillators from Riffe’s business.

“Anybody can purchase them,” he said. “They’re very user friendly. We train 10-year-old Girl Scouts how to use them.”

Bobby Simpson, president of the Charles County Volunteer Rescue Squad in La Plata, concurred, in that the machine is “voice prompted and has diagrams on the pads. The voice prompts will direct you to what to do next.”

Weighing the cost for priceless value

Access to automated external defibrillators throughout Charles County is just about “minutes away,” Simpson said, in part because the AEDs are installed in all sheriff’s office cruisers, all ambulances, fire departments’ rescue trucks and many other firefighting vehicles.

“There are quite a lot of opportunities to use it,” Simpson said. “It has to get there [where it’s needed] pretty quick. The sooner the AED is attached, the greater the odds are for survival.”

Simpson has worked the past 14 years as a custodian at a Catholic school in Charles County, and there has been an AED handy there for five years.

“It’s never been out of the box,” he said. “Thank God it’s never had to be used, but it’s available if it’s necessary.”

And that’s the decision put before any government, business, organization or family — weighing the cost of buying an AED and the potential lifesaving benefit that can come from having one handy.

“They’re very expensive, to begin with,” Simpson said.

Online websites list prices for defibrillators beginning at about $600 and going up from there to more than $1,600.

“It only has to be used one time to pay for itself,” Simpson said. “If it saves a life, it’s worth it.”

Where to learn CPR

•Charles County Volunteer Rescue Squad offers a CPR class at 8:30 a.m. the second Saturday of each month, including Jan. 11, at the squad building, 2 Calvert St., La Plata. Call 301-934-4434 or go to

•CPR classes will be held at 9 a.m. Dec. 15 and at 8 a.m. Jan. 11 at the Hollywood Volunteer Rescue Squad off Route 235 in Hollywood. Call 301-536-4447 or 301-373-3131.

•Southern MD CPR & First Aid Training in Calvert County will hold an American Safety and Health Institute CPR/AED/First Aid Class at 10 a.m. Dec. 15 at the Huntingtown firehouse. Call 443-532-5315 or go to