Almost two-thirds of the 300,000 Americans who drop dead suddenly each year from cardiac arrest might be saved if automatic shocking machines were made as common as fire extinguishers, heart specialists say.

Shocking the heart with a machine called a defibrillator can restore normal beating. But the shock must be delivered within five minutes, or the victim will die or suffer brain damage."This is an immense problem," said Dr. Douglas P. Zipes of the University of Indiana. "In terms of numbers, it far outstrips everything else, but it's a solvable problem."

Zipes and other experts outlined the need for better and faster care of cardiac arrest Tuesday at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Association.

Several experts agreed the best solution is easy-to-use defibrillators that are stored in office buildings, stores, sports arenas or wherever large numbers of people gather.

"We need to make devices that are cheap and idiot-proof," said Zipes. "They need to be as common as fire extinguishers wherever there is a congregation of people. They could be snatched off the wall, patches applied and then let the device do the work."

Current devices, while relatively simple, still require some training to operate, and they cost between $4,000 and $7,000. He said the technology already exists to mass-produce machines that would cost between $500 and $1,000 and could be operated by virtually anyone.

A variety of research has shown that the faster the shock is delivered, the better the chances of saving the victim.

"If you shock them in the first minute, virtually everyone survives," said Atkins. "It's all time."

Dr. Richard E. Kerber of the University of Iowa said "60 percent of the 300,000 people who die have a good chance of being revived" if defibrillators became widely available.