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It’s a bit like calling for a Lyft. But instead of a driver, a mobile app that just went live in Sonoma County will dispatch an everyday Superhero to your side who could save your life.

The PulsePoint Response app connects CPR-trained citizens with victims of cardiac arrest, giving them a better shot at surviving a condition that usually is fatal.

The app aims to close a critical gap between the time when a cardiac emergency is reported to 911 and the arrival of paramedics.

More deadly than a heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical malfunction in the heart that prevents it from pumping blood to essential organs. Keeping the blood circulating through CPR can mean the difference between life and death. Without blood circulation, a victim will die within minutes.

Few know that more personally than Dave Smith. With no history of heart problems, the Santa Rosa man collapsed one day in 2010 while jogging around Spring Lake.

Fortunately a passerby saw him go down and called for help. A nurse, Samantha Sharp, who was jogging nearby, heard the cry and raced over to administer CPR.

“If she hadn’t been there,” he said, “no doubt I would be dead or I would be brain damaged.” That close brush with death inspired Smith to give back. He got involved with Save Lives Sonoma, a nonprofit with a mission of training as many people as possible in hands-only CPR. The method involves applying rapid, forceful compressions on a victim’s chest. The simpler method removes the mouth to mouth component that makes some people squeamish and is endorsed by the American Heart Association, which maintains that it can be just as effective in saving lives.

People trained in CPR can voluntarily download the PulsePoint app and sign up to be responders. Registered volunteers will get an alert on their cellphone of a reported cardiac arrest that is in a public place within a quarter-mile away. Along with the alert they will get a map, an address for the emergency and an address and location description of the nearest defibrillator.

The app went live in Sonoma County last month, the latest in a string of initiatives by Save Lives Sonoma. The nonprofit, made up of representatives from fire departments, school districts, health providers, private businesses and other emergency responders in Sonoma County, offers CPR and first aid training and sponsors a program that teaches the life-saving procedure to seventh-graders throughout the county. They also secured a grant that enabled them to put portable automatic electronic defibrillators in 300 schools.

Longtime goal

Getting the PulsePoint app has been a longtime goal. The group was halfway toward meeting their $40,000 fundraising goal when they received a windfall. The PulsePoint Foundation in December awarded Save Lives Sonoma and its partner, Sonoma County EMS, a grant worth more than $20,000 to implement the program and pay for the first year of operation. Sonoma County was picked for the first award from applications submitted by communities all over the country.

Having a cardiac arrest outside the hospital is particularly deadly; 90 percent don’t make it. But CPR, especially if administered immediately, can double or triple a person’s chance of survival. According to 2014 figures from the American Heart Association, nearly 45 percent of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victims survived when bystander CPR was administered.

“When somebody goes into cardiac arrest, their chances of survival decreases 10 percent per minute (without a heartbeat),” said Dean Anderson, regional director for American Medical Response, the largest contracted ambulance service in the county and the founding agency of Save Lives Sonoma. And yet he said AMR’s average emergency response rate within more heavily populated areas is six to seven minutes. Applying CPR keeps the circulation going until they can get there.

“People will start to have brain damage within four to six minutes,” said Jeff Schach, assistant fire chief in Petaluma and a member of Save Lives Sonoma. “Doing CPR doesn’t fix the problem but what it does is circulate blood in the system, stops the clock and pumps blood with oxygen to the brain and organs. The defibrillator can actually fix what’s going on and get the heart beating again.”

Fire chief’s idea

It was former San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Richard Price who came up with the idea for the app in 2010. One day when he was out to lunch he heard sirens and saw one of his own engines pull up in front of the restaurant where he was eating. Someone next door had collapsed from cardiac arrest. Since Price was the department chief, he wasn’t dispatched to the call. But if he had been, he could have gotten to the victim almost immediately. Certified in CPR and with a defibrillator in his car, Price realized he might have saved a life.

The incident left him wondering if technology could provide a way to marshal civilians to provide a life-saving bridge until trained medical help can get to the scene.

Because of medical privacy laws it’s difficult to get the information to track how many lives have been saved by the app since it was developed and introduced seven years ago, said PulsePoint spokeswoman Shannon Smith. It is now working live in 3,300 communities in 42 states with 1.4 million subscribers. So far, the app has been activated 54,720 time, with 172,266 people within close enough range to respond, she said. Smith noted, however, that they do hear anecdotally every week from fire departments or families or victims helped by the app who write or call to report their stories.

Korey Trebbin of Palo Alto was one of them. He was ushering in a church in Santa Clara 2½ years ago when he suddenly felt dizzy and collapsed.

“I didn’t even feel myself hit the floor,” he said. At that point someone in the congregation called 911, which activated the alert. It was picked up by a woman who was a Kaiser emergency room doctor living just down the street.

The doctor, who was playing with her kids at the time, heard the alert and was at Trebbin’s side within five minutes. Meanwhile, someone else in the congregation administered CPR until the doctor arrived to take over. She kept at it until paramedics arrived four minutes later with a defibrillator to shock his heart into beating again. Even so, it took a lot of effort to bring him back. It took four tries with the AED before he responded.

“They told me I was dead for a full 18 minutes with no heartbeat, no pulse and no response. It was a very tense scene,” Trebbin said.

The doctor who responded to the PulsePoint call may have helped save his life in a secondary way as well, said Trebbin, 56, who works in the bookstore at Stanford University. The paramedics wanted to take him to a hospital farther away. She directed them instead to Kaiser, just down the street. With cardiac arrest, every minute counts.

“I don’t think you get much closer to death than this one. If the app hadn’t been activated that whole chain of responses would have broken and I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s all about timing, and when this happens the clock is running. Any way you can shave off a couple of seconds as far as responding or being involved, that’s what the app does. In this case an ER doctor beat the firemen by four or five minutes and that is just long enough for somebody to go completely out. I could have if she hadn’t come along.”

Certification not needed

People don’t have to be certified in CPR to sign up as responders. As long as they’ve had some basic training in the hands-on procedure, they’re encouraged to opt in. The American Heart Association has a 90-second video that shows how to do it.

The app is activated as soon as a 911 call is made. Dispatchers activate the app at the same time they dispatch emergency medical technicians. Responders who have the app will get an alert anywhere they happen to be in the country that offers PulsePoint service

Anderson said while some people may be slow to respond out of fear of repercussions, California’s Good Samaritan law protects from liability, anyone who responds “in good faith, and not for compensation” with help in an emergency.

In addition to recruiting CPR-trained people to sign up for the app, Save Lives Sonoma is encouraging people to help them locate and register AEDs in the county.

Smith said if anyone sees one, they can check the app to see if it is registered. If not, he said, take a picture of it with the location and send it to Save Lives Sonoma to verify and put into the database. So far they have 40 AEDs in Sonoma County verified and recorded.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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