Know CPR? New App Sends Alerts When Someone Nearby Needs It

It shows how technology can come to people’s aid -- sometimes faster than government.

While attending church last year in Santa Clara, Calif., 53-year-old Kory Trebbin suffered a heart attack. As a fellow churchgoer spoke with a 911 dispatcher, a software program linked to the city’s emergency dispatch system searched a database of CPR-trained citizens, found one in the vicinity of the emergency and sent an alert to his smartphone. The nearby off-duty emergency room physician who responded was able to reach Trebbin and perform CPR until paramedics from the Santa Clara Fire Department arrived. Ultimately, Trebbin survived.

Sudden cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 325,000 people each year. The American Heart Association estimates that if a CPR-trained person was able to provide immediate help, the chances of survival could double or even triple. But it can take several minutes for a fire department’s EMS team to reach a victim.

That’s where the tool PulsePoint comes into play. An estimated 57 percent of American adults are trained in CPR, so there’s a good chance someone nearby could help a cardiac arrest victim until the ambulance arrives. PulsePoint, which was developed by a fire chief, helps locate that person. It works like this: A mobile phone application alerts users to emergency calls to the local fire department. If the user is in the immediate vicinity of the emergency and has CPR training, they can choose to help the patient.

The concept behind PulsePoint has excited many in government, who see it as a way to encourage skilled individuals with innovative ideas to help government respond to complex problems. “The 20th-century way to deal with problems was to centralize decision-making within a bureaucracy,” says Beth Noveck, director of GovLab, a government research network at New York University. “In the 21st century, we know from wide experience that the best ideas, the most innovative ideas and expertise, are never exclusively within the four walls of an institution.”

Noveck says PulsePoint is a good example of how technology can be used to identify people with specific skills and link them with opportunities at the local, state or national levels. One such person is Tim Szymanski, the public education and information officer for the Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Department. He is CPR-trained and has downloaded PulsePoint. In using the app, Szymanski discovered that it can also be used to pinpoint the location of auto external defibrillators (AED), the devices that can jump-start a person’s heart. Finding an AED can be a challenge when responding, say, to a cardiac emergency in a 40-story hotel on the Las Vegas strip. By mapping the location of AEDs with the PulsePoint app, both emergency personnel and CPR-trained citizens can quickly locate the equipment, which is faster and easier to use than traditional CPR, according to Szymanski.

That kind of creative thinking shows how government can use technology to play a different role. Other problems traditionally managed by government that could benefit from special skills-matching software include disaster response, childhood literacy, disease outbreak and climate change. “This is a different role for government,” says Noveck, “different from its 20th-century role of trying to be the smartest person in the room.”

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.