The aim of this study was to determine community application of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills in an emergency, and, thus, assess the value of training programmes in raising community competence. A cross-sectional telephone survey of the Western Australian population was chosen randomly (n = 803). An urban sub-sample (n = 100) performed a practical demonstration of CPR skills using a simulated collapse scenario using a recording manikin as the victim. Performance was assessed by two observers using pre-determined criteria. Of all respondents, 64% had been trained in CPR. Practical and theoretical assessment scores were significantly better in trained versus untrained participants. The number of times a person was trained in CPR was more effective for retention and competence than time since last trained. Degree of training and theoretical competence were less in those aged over 65 years or with heart disease in the household. Theoretical competence poorly reflected practical performance in many tasks. This study provides a comprehensive database of CPR training and performance, and highlights future directions to ensure appropriate and cost-effective training. Specific factors to be addressed include increasing frequency of training, targeting of high-risk groups, simplification in teaching, and emphasising early activation of the emergency medical system. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.