Safe space: Isanti County earns Heart Safe Community title

Pictured are those at the June 19 Isanti County Board meeting who were recognized for their role in helping achieve Heart Safe Community status, along with the county board. (Front row from left) Cambridge city council member Bob Shogren, Isanti Fire District Chief Al Jankovich, Cambridge Fire Deputy Chief Will Pennings, Braham mayor Tish Carlson, Krista Jensen of Isanti County Public Health, Allina Heart Safe coordinator Renee Hamdorf, and Isanti Public Health Director Tony Buttacavoli. (Back row) Isanti Board members Terry Turnquist and Dave Oslund, Isanti Board Chair Mike Warring, Isanti Board members Greg Anderson and Susan Morris, Dr. Mark Thayer, and Allina Health EMS Manager Bruce Hildebrandt.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in the world, and residents of Isanti County just became more protected from it.   

The county, along with Braham, Cambridge and Isanti, were designated Heart Safe communities during a presentation at the June 19 Isanti County Board meeting – a goal the county has been striving to reach for the past 15 years.  

Renee Hamdorf, Allina Health’s coordinator for Heart Safe Communities, gave a brief history of the work needed to accomplish the goal, and presented certificates and plaques to a number of the key figures who helped achieve it.

In early 2004, Isanti County Public Health, Allina Health EMS, Allina Health Cambridge Medical Center and Memorial Hospital Foundation created and started toward the goal of making Isanti County a Heart Safe community. Leading the way was Bruce Hildebrandt (Allina EMS), Kathy Minkler (Isanti County Public Health - retired) and Dr. Mark Thayer (formally of Cambridge Medical Center).

“The idea was that all cities and townships would be prepared for cardiac arrest at work, play and at home,” Hamdorf said, noting that through many partnerships and with the support of public funds and private donors throughout the years, the county sustained the commitment and reached the Heart Safe community designation.

The objectives created by the original group in early 2004 were to:

• educate citizens about sudden cardiac arrest;

• educate citizens on life-saving methods such as CPR;

• improve heart health;

• raise funds to install AEDs (automated external defibrillators) in community gathering places;  

• train residents to use AEDs to save lives.

The path to Heart Safe

Heart Safe is a program through the Minnesota Resuscitation Consortium, the American Heart Association, the Minnesota Department of Health and a team of statewide organizations. 

A community reaches Heart Safe designation by acquiring points or “heartbeats” based on population size. Heartbeats are earned through community awareness programs, CPR training, AED placement and mapping, access to rapid emergency services and progressive hospital systems, and development of community heart-healthy activities.

First steps in reaching the goal included purchasing, granting and placing AEDs in vehicles with all first responders in the county, including police departments, fire departments, the sheriff’s office and safety-rescue. 

After that, AEDs were placed in the community at social, learning and civic buildings such as schools, senior centers, city/county government centers, community centers and libraries. 

The final phase was placement in private businesses and faith communities, such as dental offices and churches. At least 60 AEDs have been placed throughout Isanti County.

Another important factor in achieving the goal was training the community to recognize signs of sudden cardiac arrest and how to perform CPR and use the AEDs. Partners working to achieve the Heart Safe community designation have been training individuals throughout the county, and in 2017-2018, 537 community members received training.

“I can tell you from my personal experience, 95% of the cardiac arrests where we saved somebody, somebody was doing CPR when we got to that person,” Hamdorf stated. “So, it’s people in the public that really make that difference. We call it the chain of survival, and the first three links are early recognition – somebody noticing something that’s wrong and calling 911 – early CPR, good CPR; and early defibrillation.” 

She noted that if any of those three links were missing, the next two links – advanced support and hospital/advanced care – really didn’t make much of a difference. 

“We need those first three links,” she said, “and so having people in the public trained in CPR, recognition and using AEDs is so important.” 

She added that many survivors of sudden cardiac arrest decide to assist in training the community in CPR and using AED. 

“Before they had a cardiac arrest, they had no idea what an AED was, and now they are out telling people how to use one and how to do CPR,” Hamdorf said.

Getting AEDs into the community

Receiving his certificate of recognition for his role in achieving Heart Safe status for the county, Dr. Mark Thayer noted that being aware of people dropping dead of sudden cardiac arrest and being aware of AEDs is important. 

“It’s not a heart attack,” he said, “It’s when electrical conduction of the heart somehow doesn’t work right and people end up dropping, so it’s sudden cardiac arrest. At that point, every minute about 6-10% of the likelihood that they survive starts ticking. And so, when I started this with Bruce and Kathy, it was the coordination of EMS, Cambridge, the county – and it was huge.”

Thayer said one success the county has seen since working toward the designation is that years ago organizations kept their AEDs locked up in a cabinet because they were so important. 

“Well, that’s not where they would work,” he said, “because things don’t happen during a work day where someone says, ‘Oh, we have an AED.’” 

He said that in recent years AEDs have been well-marked and they are everywhere. 

“Occasionally someone steals them,” he said, “Then they find out they are worthless, and they put them back.”

Acknowledging that Cambridge Police Department was one of the last first responders to want an AED, Thayer said he understood their hesitancy with having an additional piece of equipment for which they were responsible. However, Cambridge Police Department was also the first one to save a life in the county using AED. 

“One of the most impactful things for me is to go to the survivor dinner in downtown St. Paul,” Thayer said, noting hundreds of people that have dropped dead of sudden cardiac arrest are walking around in suits and ties and silk dresses celebrating life. “Please, let people know there are AEDs throughout their community. This is really a big deal. There are people in this community that are alive because of all of the work that you have done.”

Isanti Fire District Chief Al Jankovich echoed Hamdorf’s and Thayer’s sentiments regarding AEDs, CPR and how important education and knowledge is for the survival of those who have a sudden cardiac arrest. 

“From a first responder point of view, this stuff actually works, and it works very well,” he said. “Having been on some of the success sides of early CPR and defibrillation, it is amazing to see people out in the community after they have had this type of treatment. I think it’s well worth it. Thank you for your support.”

During the designation ceremony, 14 major partners were recognized. In addition, the cities of Braham, Cambridge and Isanti, along with Isanti County, were given road signs to display to show community members and visitors they are a Heart Safe community.

Any municipality, county or organization is eligible to apply for the Heart Safe designation. Separate application and requirements are available for schools or work sites.

To learn more about Heart Safe Community Designation and to access applications and toolkits, visit or and search “Heart Safe designation.” 

To learn more about free CPR resources, visit 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.