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Saving Lives With A Smartphone: App Links 911 Dispatch To Volunteer CPR Responders

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Mechanic and volunteer EMT Jeff Olson visits the baby whose life he saved last September. Mother Karen Garrison looks on in Spokane.

Would you let your smartphone share your location if it meant that one day you could come to a stranger's rescue?

In certain Northwest cities now, 911 dispatch sends out mobile phone alerts to citizen responders nearby when a person requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a public place.

A free smartphone app called PulsePoint automatically notifies users when there's a cardiac emergency nearby. It's tied in to participating 911 dispatch centers. The idea is for citizen responders to start CPR while medics are still on the way.

‘I assumed the ambulance would arrive first’

Last September, Karen Garrison went shopping with her children at a ballet store in Spokane, Washington. It was there her youngest child, baby Nolan, stopped breathing.

"It was such a blur,” Garrison said. “Someone yelled, 'Call 911! He's not breathing.' He was blue."

The shopkeeper immediately dialed for help.

Credit Spokane Fire Dept.
Spokane Fire Dept.
A screen grab shows six citizen responders were nearby when PulsePoint was activated after a person collapsed at a shelter in Spokane earlier this month.

"I don't know CPR,” Garrison said. “So I was just holding him basically until I assumed the ambulance would arrive first.”

At that moment about a block and a half away, master mechanic Jeff Olson was fixing a car at the Perfection Tire garage. Olson had downloaded PulsePoint six months earlier and his smartphone squawked to life.

"The phone went off. I thought, ‘That's kind of strange,’” Olson recalled. “'CPR needed.' It gave me an address. And I'm going, ‘Wow, that's just a short (way away).’"

Olson knew that seconds count in such a situation since he moonlights as a volunteer EMT with an ambulance service north of Spokane. He said he washed his hands "real quick" and dashed to the scene.

"I asked her what's happening and then scooped up the baby and put him in my arm and started doing some rescue breathing for him,” Olson said.

A life-saving difference

"The more responders we can get there that can switch out (doing) CPR and keep that person's blood pumping until we have professional responders there, the more likely that person is going to survive," Spokane Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said.

Screen grab of a PulsePoint notification on a potential responder's phone.

Earlier this month, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of randomized, controlled trial in Stockholm, Sweden, involving volunteers trained in CPR and a mobile phone technology similar to PulsePoint. That study determined the targeted mobile phone alerts significantly increased the likelihood that cardiac arrest patients received CPR from a lay bystander.

Spokane County and the Portland-Vancouver-Salem metro area were the first communities in the Northwest to adopt PulsePoint. Spokane County implemented the app in early 2014 and it rolled out incrementally in Portland's environs starting in 2013. The app was invented about five years ago by a fire chief from Northern California named Richard Price.

Schaeffer said in the Spokane area the app triggers an alert to citizen responders within a quarter-mile of an incident about 150 times per year. Some percentage of those make a life-saving difference, although the chief can't say exactly how many. Good Samaritans emerge in varying ways and then often disappear before they can be debriefed and thanked.

"Anybody can be a rescuer. It is that simple,” Schaeffer said. “In fact traditionally, we used to teach CPR in fire stations. We don't do that anymore. It's all on the internet."

Schaeffer said in the case of baby Nolan, the nearest fire engine was on another call. So it took more than five minutes for medics to arrive. Citizen responder Jeff Olson and the PulsePoint app got credit for saving baby Nolan's life.

Olson didn't know the Garrison family before, but now eight months later they've become reacquainted under happier circumstances. On a recent visit to the Garrison home, Olson cooed over the smiling baby and was welcomed like a fast friend.

Michael Garrison, Nolan's father, said the baby has underlying health issues, but made a full recovery from the respiratory arrest episode. Garrison now wants everyone at the coffeehouse he owns trained in CPR and signed up with PulsePoint.

"This is the point of the app on your phone,” he said. “It's not just Angry Birds. It is not just things to waste your life. It's actually... a perfect example of a selfless app that is there to help other people.”

'No risk to a Good Samaritan'

Schaeffer said community members frequently ask about cost, privacy and liability when he promotes PulsePoint. Regarding privacy, Schaeffer explained that the app shares your current location with 911 call centers, but cannot track a user over time. The PulsePoint app does not transmit the app user's name to authorities.

Neither do citizen responders receive the name of a person in distress, only the address at which CPR is urgently needed. The bystander alert software is further programmed to exclude cardiac arrest calls from private residences so those do not trigger a PulsePoint activation.

"There is no risk to a Good Samaritan that renders aid," assured Schaeffer regarding the concern about liability for failed life-saving actions.

Spokane Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer describes another "save" credited to PulsePoint, which happened along the crowded race course of the 2014 Bloomsday 12K Run in Spokane.

The uptake by emergency dispatch centers in the Northwest has been scattershot. Some departments such as Olympia-Thurston County discovered their dispatch software is incompatible with the app. In Boise, an administrator said other 911 upgrades have higher priority.

PulsePoint is coming to the region's biggest metro area -- Seattle/King County and adjacent Snohomish County -- once they raise the money to cover the startup costs.

The Seattle-based Medic One Foundation leads the effort to bring PulsePoint to the Puget Sound area. A specific date for a rollout has not been announced.

"When it gets here, it will be a great addition," Medic One Foundation Executive Director Jan Sprake said. She said she is looking for community sponsorships to support the launch.

Redmond, Washington-based Physio-Control has taken over distribution and marketing of the CPR notification app in a partnership with its developer, the PulsePoint Foundation.

Emergency communications centers that deploy the app pay an annual licensing fee on a sliding scale of $8,000 to $28,000 depending on population.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.