Forrest Kuiper, a fire chief with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was eating breakfast at home on a Sunday morning when his cellphone buzzed.
It was a notification from PulsePoint, a free smartphone application that sends alerts to people within a 1-mile radius of a potentially life-threatening emergency to recruit their assistance before paramedics arrive.
Municipal emergency officials in Anchorage say they’re planning to make the service available in the city by December. They’re currently in a planning stage and choosing which application to use, according to Anchorage Fire Department assistant chief Bill Kays.
The idea behind the app is that the sooner a person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest gets help — even if it’s just a few minutes before emergency responders arrive — the more likely that person will survive.
The notifications are triggered by certain calls to a local emergency dispatch center: those involving reports of people who have stopped breathing or who no longer have a pulse, either from an overdose, heart attack, trauma or another kind of medical emergency.
The app also allows responders and members of the public to see on a map where and when different types of emergencies are occurring, which can be good for general awareness, Kuiper said.
That Sunday in Fairbanks, other members of the fire station got the same notification he did. By the time they had received an official call from the Fairbanks North Star Borough emergency dispatch center, “we were already on the road,” Kuiper said in a recent interview.
He and others arrived in time to successfully administer CPR. The person lived.
Back to life
On a recent Friday afternoon at Anchorage’s emergency dispatch center, a five-person team juggled incoming calls to the fire department forwarded by 911.
The calls included a residential fire, a man whose wheelchair had tipped over and a woman who was reporting a medical emergency in a parking lot.
Speaking into their headsets, the dispatchers quickly and carefully directed the callers and responding paramedics.
“Help is on the way,” they told each caller before hanging up.
Even without widespread use of a CPR app, Alaska still has a higher-than-average rate of resuscitations — in part because of fast response times, said Dr. Mike Levy, Anchorage EMS director.
The average time it takes for emergency responders to arrive on scene after a call to dispatch is less than five minutes, according to data provided by the Anchorage Fire Department.
When a caller reports an emergency that may require CPR, dispatchers stay on the phone with the caller, instructing them how to administer the procedure. They even have a metronome they play through the phone to show the caller the best speed for chest compressions.
When someone is experiencing cardiac arrest, starting CPR immediately, even a minute or two sooner than rescuers can arrive, can make a huge difference in saving a life, Levy said.
“It really is a minute-by-minute thing,” he said, explaining that when someone’s heart has stopped, every minute that passes before CPR starts decreases the likelihood of survival by about 10%.
Survival rates are typically highest when someone witnesses a cardiac arrest, Levy said. Unwitnessed incidents have a survival of 4.4% while witnessed cardiac arrests have a rate around 23%, he said, citing national data from the Cardiac Arrest Registry to Enhance Survival.
More than half of all sudden cardiac arrests are unwitnessed. After 10 minutes, a person is unlikely to survive.
In Alaska last year, in cases where a bystander was present, emergency responders were able to resuscitate 52 out of 84 people who needed CPR because their hearts had stopped, Levy said.
“So we managed to take these dead people and make them live,” he said. “They were well and truly dead. And then we did our stuff, and 52 out of 84 came back to life, which I think is kind of astounding.”
Levy thinks that rate might be even higher in Anchorage with the help of an app like PulsePoint.
How it works
Fairbanks responders encourage anyone who knows CPR to sign up for the PulsePoint app. But only “verified users” — those who work for the local fire department — are told the exact address of the emergency, Kuiper said. Regular people who sign up are only notified when emergencies happen in public places.
It’s possible Anchorage could use a different app. Just before COVID-19, the state purchased temporary use of an app that works similarly to PulsePoint, called GoodSAM, a reference to good Samaritans.
The state briefly piloted the program, but then the pandemic began, which hampered efforts to get it up and running with the public, according to Levy. The grant funding for the pilot has nearly run out, he said.
Assistant chief Kays said the approximately $10,000 startup cost for PulsePoint — and an $8,000 annual fee thereafter — would come out of the Anchorage Fire Department’s operating budget.
The department is still deciding which app to use — and may potentially use both both, Kays said.
So far, Fairbanks is Alaska’s only region using the app. But Levy is hopeful that will change soon, along with a shift toward CPR awareness and training for regular people.
In Fairbanks, the launch of PulsePoint spurred an increase in people signing up for CPR certifications and classes, Kuiper said. The app can also walk responders through how to administer CPR in case they’ve forgotten, he said.
PulsePoint, which has been used in more than 5,000 cities worldwide, was first used in Fairbanks in 2019 and now has nearly 3,000 monthly users in the area, about 3% of the population, according to Kuiper.
According to a monthly snapshot report from June, eight CPR alerts were sent out that month in the Fairbanks area, according to PulsePoint data provided by Kuiper. Twenty people received notifications that month.
In Fairbanks, the initial funding for the app came from the Rotary Club of Fairbanks, Foundation Health Partners and the Interior Fire Chiefs Association, he said. Ongoing costs are paid for by Foundation Health Partners and the fire chiefs association.
Kuiper said he’s hopeful that people will continue to sign up for the app in the Fairbanks area. He’s already seeing positive results.
“Within our department, it’s not uncommon to go to a CPR call and have a responder already doing CPR when we get there,” he said.