Smartphone App links 911 dispatch to volunteers responders

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

In some Northwest cities, 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.

Use of the app might take a while to arrive in Pierce County.

PulsePoint, along with other similar apps, will need to be reviewed for compatibility with the new computer-aided dispatch system the county's police and emergency services are scheduled to launch in October, said Andrew Neiditz, executive director of South Sound 911.

Olympia-Thurston County dispatch discovered its software was incompatible with the app.

PulsePoint is coming to Seattle, King County and 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.

Spokane County and the Portland-Vancouver-Salem metro area were the first communities in the Northwest to adopt PulsePoint, which was invented about five years ago by a fire chief from Northern California named Richard Price.

Spokane County implemented the app in early 2014 and it rolled out incrementally in Portland’s environs starting in 2013.

In the Spokane area, the app triggers an alert to citizen responders within a quarter-mile of an incident about 150 times per year, said Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer.

Some percentage of those make a life-saving difference, although Schaeffer couldn’t can’t say how many. Good Samaritans emerge in varying ways and then often disappear before they can be debriefed and thanked.


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

The shopkeeper immediately dialed 911 for help.

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

About a block and a half away, 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, a volunteer EMT with an ambulance service north of Spokane, 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.

The nearest fire engine was on another call, so it took more than five minutes for medics to arrive. Olson and the PulsePoint app got credit for saving the baby’s life.


Physio-Control of Redmond has taken over distribution and marketing of the 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.

The app shares a person’s current location with 911 call centers, but cannot track a user over time and does not transmit the app user’s name to authorities, Schaeffer said.

Citizen responders do not receive the name of a person in distress, only the address at which CPR is needed. The software is 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.

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.


Jeff Olson didn’t know the Garrison family before, but now eight months after helping save their baby’s life 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 said his infant son 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.”

News Tribune staff writer Derrick Nunnally contributed to this report.