Meeting professionals can be some of the heroes of the world because we're out and about. We're not asking planners to be paramedics, but they need to be the eyes and hands in an emergency situation," says Richard Obertots, founder of Warren, Ohio-based SafeMeetings. "[Conference management] is not just [about] nice place settings--a meeting planner can save an attendee's life."

When it comes to medical emergencies, medical meeting planners have the edge--their attendees are usually physicians or other health care professionals trained to handle a crisis. Still, a heart attack may not be on anyone's radar screen, especially at a beautiful resort tucked away in a remote location--until there's a crisis.

"I hear about catastrophe after catastrophe just because people did not know how to activate help," says Obertots. He's committed to making meetings safer with his new venture, SafeMeetings (www.safemeetings.com), a medical emergency education provider for meeting planners and properties.

"A planner may be a witness to a medical emergency or may be called to one," says Obertots, an emergency medical technician and a 17-year veteran of emergency room trauma care systems. And in a remote area, transportation to a hospital can sometimes be 30 to 40 minutes--or more--away, and simply calling 911 is not the answer in a case like that, he says. "The planner may have to be more hands-on with a response plan."

CardioReady Conference Venues Safety-savvy planners can start by taking a cue from SafeMeetings' top priority: Cardiac medical emergencies are the most likely to occur and--with 600 Americans dying from cardiac arrest daily--the most likely to be deadly. But with new and affordable portable devices called automated external defibrillators (AEDs), someone with moderate training can administer potentially lifesaving electroshocks to a heart attack victim. The resuscitation rate is 90 percent when the victim receives the shock within a minute. It falls to less than 5 percent after 10 minutes. Last October, Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association reported on a study of sixth-grade students that showed that after one minute of instruction, it took the children less than 30 seconds longer than a trained professional to apply a shock that could restore a heartbeat.

"These things definitely work," says Greg Foreman, director of security for Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, which has two AEDs on the property that have been used successfully on two occasions. Ahead of the curve, OCCC purchased the units three years ago from the Orange County Fire Department for about $1,700 each, and the plan is to buy several more when a 1.2 million-square-foot expansion at the convention center is complete.

"Some of our shows attract an elderly clientele," Foreman says, "and in that case we gear up for cardiac problems. But every time we respond to a medical emergency, we always come with the defib (AED). It's so simple to use, and in both cases we used it, the person pulled through."

Right now, there is no central database of AED-equipped venues, dubbed CardioReady destinations by Obertots, but he is planning to launch an Internet registry of such properties this fall. He has signed a letter of intent with PlanSoft (www.plansoft.com), a Web-based meeting facilities database and RFP (request for proposal) engine. Obertots says the alliance would give SafeMeetings a ready-made source of thousands of properties and in turn would give PlanSoft relevant content in the field of emergency preparedness and safety.

Safe Site Inspections Evaluating a facility's ability to handle an emergency should begin at the point of contact with the property in the RFP and pre-con stages, Obertots says. "The first thing a meeting planner should ask is whether the property has a commitment to safety and a program to support it. You need to ask about the ratio of the staff trained in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and how to use AEDs. Get a sense of their commitment, then get the evidence."

Obertots praises Fairmont Hotels for its safety program. Their dedication shows in how they compensate their staff, he says, with managers rewarded in part for their health and safety record. "Most other chains have been sitting back and watching," he says, "but Fairmont is a best-practices model in the sense that their health and safety program is tied to evaluations of employees."

Site inspections provide good opportunities for planners to evaluate a facility's commitment to safety, Obertots says. The key is to ask staff questions such as, 'What should I do if someone is having a heart attack?' or 'What number do I call on the house phone to get emergency medical help?'

"Catch someone in the hallway," Obertots says, "housekeeping, maintenance, someone like that. Don't ask the salesperson--he'll just say, 'Yeah, sure we have a plan.'"

The most critical step is to learn the site-specific number that activates the property's emergency response. "The main problem is that every venue has a different emergency number and it's not 911," says Obertots. "I always ask planners in my seminars to make a pledge that if they remember nothing else, they remember how to activate emergency help at their particular conference venue."

Attendee Alert Planners should begin communicating with attendees about emergency preparedness with the pre-meeting information sent out months before the event. Obertots suggests a separate e-mail to registrants detailing emergency situations that can arise and how the planning staff is prepared for them. At every opportunity, make attendees aware of information such as the venue's emergency number, whether AEDs are on site and where they are located, as well as the staff's level of training, and the location of local hospitals. "[Emergency instructions] should be [in] a stand-alone piece--a name badge, a hotel key card," says Obertots. "The biggest problem I see is that this information is usually buried in a brochure."

Heart-Saving Staff Association staff should also be ready. The least amount of training that planners and their staff should receive is the Heart Saver course, CPR, and AED instruction. Each training course, says Obertots, covers how to rapidly access emergency services. "These courses help you to first recognize that there is a problem when you observe someone stumbling and sweating," says Obertots, and then teach you how to activate emergency help."

Another important standard planners can impart to the staff is regular bathroom checks during an event.

"Instruct staff to make it a routine to peek in the rest rooms," Obertots says, "because that's the first place a sick person will go and they might collapse in there. Make it part of your staff's walking protocol."

Lessening Your Liability Taking Obertots suggestions may not only help ensure an effective emergency response, it may also help you with liability issues should a medical emergency occur.

Typically, the meeting planner is not responsible in medical emergency cases, but incidents are fact-specific and, depending on an unusual set of facts, could make anyone potentially liable, cautions attorney Jed R. Mandel, a partner in the Chicago-based law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, and an MM columnist.

"Disclosure is the best policy," he advises. "Simply disclosing where the nearest hospital is or whether a doctor is on call goes a long way in being reasonably prudent." But don't set yourself up for liability, he adds. "Don't go so far as to make guarantees that attendees will have access to all necessary medical care and equipment, or that you will keep them from harm."

Our society is witnessing a shifting standard of care when it comes to medical emergency treatment, and the issue reached high-profile status with President Clinton's announcement in May regarding automated external defibrillators (AEDs), portable devices that use step-by-step voice commands that lead a rescuer to administer potentially lifesaving electroshocks to a person in cardiac arrest.

Clinton has * directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to come up with guidelines for putting AEDs in all federal buildings and facilities;

* pushed for legislation that would grant legal immunity to good Samaritans who use AEDs in public or private buildings and facilities; and

* proposed a new rule that would require all commercial aircraft with at least one flight attendant on board to include AEDs in their medical kits.

Safe Site Tips To help meeting planners evaluate a conference venue for its readiness to handle a medical emergency, Richard Obertots of SafeMeetings, has put together a safe site checklist. To obtain a copy, visit www.meetingsnet.com/mm/0700/ safety.asp.