In Case of Emergency, Launch an App

A team of computer scientists develop smartphone apps to help people at the scene and the 911 operator.

By Cameron WalkerFeb 13, 2014 3:30 PM
One app helps guide first-aid responders to ensure chest compressions are as effective as possible.  | University of North Texas


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You see a man collapse right in front of you, then you dial 911 and suddenly forget everything you learned in CPR class. Yet for the best response, the 911 operator must have as many details as possible in the first 60 seconds — a challenging task during a crisis. A team of computer scientists thinks smartphones can help. Ram Dantu, an engineering and computer science professor at the University of North Texas, and his colleagues have developed a suite of smartphone applications to help people at the scene and the 911 operator.

  • If a victim needs CPR, a bystander can strap her smartphone to the back of her hand with a plastic bag or T-shirt and get real-time feedback on technique. When Dantu had 45 CPR students and instructors test the app, it showed their initial compressions were too slow and shallow.

  • Using one of the apps, a bystander can press a victim’s finger against the smartphone’s camera to find the victim’s heart rate, then have the app dial 911 to send this and other vital signs to a dispatcher.

  • Another app lets an operator remotely control the camera on a bystander’s phone — zooming in and focusing to get a more complete view of the scene. Having a dispatcher’s eyes on the emergency could help quickly identify injuries and potential hazards. 

Dantu’s team is awaiting FDA clearance to market the apps as medical devices. But other hurdles exist. Dispatchers in some areas still don’t get exact location information from mobile phones. Several states have started to revamp call centers to receive text and video calls, but it may take years before that’s available at all of the nation’s 6,000-plus emergency call centers. 

[This article originally appeared in print as "In Case of Emergency, Launch App."]

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