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iPhone App Enables Citizens to Assist With CPR Emergencies

An innovative example of crowdsourcing alerts iPhone app users when an emergency requires CPR within walking distance.

When someone suffers a heart attack, little time is available to save the person’s life. That’s why every minute is precious when responding to a cardiac emergency.

To increase the chances of saving victims of cardiac arrest, this winter the San Ramon Valley, Calif., Fire Protection District launched a feature on its free iPhone app called Fire Department that notifies citizens in the area when someone is suffering from an emergency requiring CPR.

Citizens who opt in to the CPR feature indicate they are trained in the lifesaving method. If an emergency is called in that requires CPR, citizens can start the procedure if first-response personnel aren’t the first to arrive at the scene. The app also notifies citizen rescuers where to find the closest publicly accessible defibrillator, according to the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District.

By opting into the notification system on the app, citizens within walking distance of the emergency receive a message on their iPhone with location details where the CPR is needed, said Kimberly French, the fire district’s information officer.

“If you’re at Starbucks and next door at the deli somebody goes down, you’re getting a notification,” French said. “You’re that close to the person needing the assistance.”

The notification system covers San Ramon’s 155 square miles including its three communities — Alamo, Danville and San Ramon — and users are only notified of cardiac emergencies if they’re occurring in a public place, she said.

Users can indicate they have CPR training by enabling the CPR function on the app. By enabling this function, citizens are acknowledging they’ve done some form of appropriate training and are willing to help out in an emergency situation. But those who do opt in to receive alerts aren’t required to have formal CPR certification, French said.

When a cardiac arrest emergency is called to 911, the district’s dispatchers code in “CPR assistance needed” into the computer-aided dispatch system. The computer system notifies first responders as well as the smartphones equipped with the CPR feature that are within walking distance of the emergency, French said.

San Ramon Valley’s Fire Chief Richard Price said inspiration for the app was the result of an incident that took place involving him and some of his staff. One day while he and some IT personnel were out to lunch, an emergency medical vehicle pulled up next door to respond to an emergency.

Because Price doesn’t receive all medical calls on his pager, he and the staff had no idea a medical emergency was taking place just feet away from them. After the incident, Price and his staff brainstormed ideas on how to prevent that situation from occurring again.

“It was surprising — disturbing I would say — that somebody could be in great need so close,” Price said. “One of the IT guys is a paramedic, I [had] a defibrillator in my car; we’re all CPR trained and we could have made a difference, but were unaware of it.”

Since the CPR feature launched in January, between 300 and 500 people have uploaded the app every day. Not all users have chosen to opt into the app’s new feature. Users from other areas can download the app, but would only receive CPR notifications if they lived in the San Ramon area, French said.

Other than the CPR feature, San Ramon valley’s “Fire Department” app includes features such as fire notifications and maps showing where fires are occurring.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.