I AM a woman on the look-out for a heart attack. One morning last week, in the space of two hours, I learnt how to save a life and naturally I am anxious to put this new skill to the test.

'Resussy Annie', the blonde dummy on which countless first-aiders have learnt the kiss of life, is as close as you can get to the real thing, but inevitably she is disappointing. However correctly you may breathe into her chest and see it rise and fall, however deftly you may locate her sternum (or breastbone) and place the heels of your hands in the proper place to bump-start her heart, the wretched mannequin remains resolutely dead.

I may not be alone in my heroic fantasy. This week's Breath of Life campaign by St John Ambulance (or in Scotland the St Andrew's Ambulance Association) aims to put between 150,000 and 250,000 men and women through the same life-saving paces, in a series of free two-hour courses around the country. The campaign is intended to persuade more of us to learn the basic skills of first aid, about which there is an alarming amount of ignorance, according to Kate Buchanan, St John Ambulance spokeswoman.

St John argues that the guidance on first aid issued to employers by the Health and Safety Executive should be turned into statutory requirements and that the advice should also cover schools. 'The guidance provides for one first-aider for every 50 employees,' says Ms Buchanan. 'But we heard of one school where there were only three first-aiders for 1,500 children.'

The organisation is also calling for resuscitation skills to be taught to children routinely, starting with six-year-olds, who are welcome to take part in this week's courses.

The Breath of Life campaign posters issue a challenge: 'If someone was collapsed unconscious and not breathing at your feet, would you know what to do?' So those who often wonder what they would do if the person at the next desk were to clutch their chest and collapse can now replace their ignorance with knowledge.

The courses will teach volunteers how to maintain life in the period before professionals arrive. Heart attacks are the most common cause of death, killing about 600 people a day, so the courses concentrate on this, although the techniques can be used in other emergencies.

At the session arranged for journalists that I attended, we learnt the fundamental rules of first aid, encapsulated in the mnemonic 'Drab- C', or sometimes 'Dr ABC', which stand for Danger, Response, Airway, Breathing and Circulation. 'Danger' reminds first-aiders to assess the situation and check for further danger to the patient or themselves. 'Response' means trying to get a response from the patient, checking to see if he or she can talk to you, and asking others to get help. 'Airway' reminds the first-aider to check that the airway is clear and to tilt the head back. Checks for breathing and circulation follow.

Tricia Earp, a St John trainer from Berkshire, showed us how to recognise a heart attack; what to do if the patient is unconscious but breathing, and has a pulse (putting them into the 'recovery position'); if the patient is unconscious but not breathing, and has a pulse (giving the 'kiss of life'); and if the patient is unconscious and not breathing and has no pulse (the kiss of life and chest compression).

After some fun putting each other in the recovery position, it was time to attack the dummy. The kiss of life, or artificial ventilation, is not as easy as it looks. Resussy Annie may be clean and tidy and happily free of vomit, saliva, false teeth or other ghastly things you may encounter in real-life first aid, but it is quite hard to breathe into her effectively. You really have to clamp your mouth over hers to get a good seal. When you do it properly, her chest expands nicely and the air goes out of little holes in her sides, making the noise of a deflating balloon.

Chest compression, which would be used on an unconscious patient with no pulse, is a technique for manually squidging the blood around by pressing vigorously on the chest, on top of the heart. You do two kisses of life, then 15 chest compressions, pressing down with straight arms at a rate of more than one a second. Annie's chest mimics the sort of resistance you would feel on an adult chest. This is an energetic business: more than 10 minutes of mouth-to-mouthing and chest compressing would probably render me fit for the other trolley in the ambulance.

And that was it. I now know that a heart-attack victim, if conscious, is better off sitting up than lying down. I know how to find a pulse in the neck. I know that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation needs a surprisingly large amount of concentration and effort. I know how to find the right place to put my hands in order to compress a chest. It was all so well taught and easily learnt. Probably it was the most useful two hours I have ever spent.

The first-aid courses are run by local branches of St John Ambulance. Details: freephone 0800 226226.