New phone app turns ordinary Sacramentans into first responders

The PulsePoint website shows the app that recruits passers-by to respond to cardiac emergencies.
The PulsePoint website shows the app that recruits passers-by to respond to cardiac emergencies.

Sacramento-area fire agencies last week unveiled a new mobile phone app that recruits passers-by to respond to cardiac emergencies.

The PulsePoint app is designed to alert ordinary citizens when someone nearby needs cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Those trained in CPR can then run over and begin administering aid before medical personnel arrive. Long delays in receiving medical help can mean the difference between life and death and can affect the quality of a patient’s recovery, according to Capt. Michelle Eidam, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

“This will absolutely change the outcomes,” said Eidam, who is also a medic.

Eidam noted that even if bystanders don’t know the complete CPR routine, they still can help the stricken person by performing chest compressions to circulate oxygen in the body.

“Push fast, push hard in the center of the chest,” she said. “Even if it’s not the most perfect CPR, it’s still better than nothing.”

The PulsePoint app was launched in 2011 by Richard Price, a former fire chief in San Ramon. Price conceived the idea after a person went into cardiac arrest a few doors down from the deli where he was eating. Because he didn’t have a radio, the fire chief didn’t learn about the incident until after the fact.

“You can be very close to an incident and not be aware of it,” Price said in a phone interview. “I didn’t have a radio. I had a cellphone. So I wondered if you could use a cellphone just like a firefighter’s radio and notify people in the vicinity.”

PulsePoint is available in 1,500 cities and 25 states across the nation, covering millions of people. While patient privacy laws prevent PulsePoint officials from tracking outcomes, anecdotal evidence suggests the app is making a difference, Price said.

When someone suffers a heart-related event or cardiac arrest, bystanders typically call 911, and dispatchers send medical personnel to the site. When a fire department is subscribed to PulsePoint, software will automatically send an alert to mobile phone users with the app installed, alerting them to the emergency. The system will launch only if a user is within a quarter mile of the incident.

PulsePoint will display a map and show directions to the location. Of course, all of this is voluntary and entirely reliant on the help of good Samaritans. There is no guarantee anyone will receive the alert. Typically, each event generates about three alerts, but there is no way to track how many people respond, Price said.

The technology has other limitations. The user must be running the app and must be connected to a cell tower.

In the Sacramento region, four fire agencies – Sacramento Fire, Metro Fire, Cosumnes Fire and Folsom Fire – have signed on to the program, made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Wireless Foundation. The ongoing service charge of $18,000 annually will be divided among the departments and the EMS Communications Center, according to Ben Sosenko, spokesman for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who spearheaded the program.

On the day of the app’s launch in Sacramento, Price was in town for a news conference at Cesar Chavez Park. Minutes before the media event started, Price received an alert on his phone, indicating someone suffering from cardiac arrest at the nearby Shasta Hotel. Price, along with a dozen others, headed to the hotel on foot, but it was later determined that the individual had been dead for hours.

The app is geared toward off-duty first responders and medical personnel who may have CPR training but are not always aware of emergencies nearby. In San Diego County alone, Price said, there are roughly 45,000 active users of the mobile app. In Sacramento, a few hundred had signed up as of early last week.

Asked about issues of liability, Price said California has strong “good Samaritan” laws that prevent people from suing irresponsibly.

“We want to have a society where we help each other,” Price said. “As long as people are not acting recklessly or negligently, they have liability protection.”

He added, “You also have to remember if somebody needs CPR … they are about as close to death as you can be. If you do nothing, they die.”

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang