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App for 'citizen superheroes' a victim of its own success in Kingston

The City of Kingston is rejigging a popular app that promises to save lives, but also shares the location of emergencies including heart attacks, domestic assaults and fires with thousands of users — some of whom would beat first responders to the scene.

PulsePoint users arriving at emergency scenes before paramedics, causing confusion

Officials in Kingston, Ont., stopped transmitting emergency call information through the popular PulsePoint app in September. They say a revamped version is on the way in the coming weeks. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The City of Kingston is rejigging a popular app that promises to save lives, but also shares the location of emergencies including heart attacks, domestic assaults and fires with thousands of users — some of whom would beat first responders to the scene.

PulsePoint was first introduced in Kingston in March 2015. Since then, the app, which was developed by a San Francisco-based non-profit, has registered about 8,000 users in the eastern Ontario city.

Users receive notifications whenever there's an emergency in the city, including the address — often, a private residence.

I think it was functioning almost too good.- Kingston Fire and Rescue Chief Shawn Armstrong

"I think it was functioning almost too good," Kingston Fire and Rescue Chief Shawn Armstrong told Ontario Morning host Wei Chen. "Every time we would be dispatched as a fire service, say to a fire in your home, before we even got there, we would notify the community through this app."

But there have been cases where self-identified "PulsePoint responders" arrived at people's homes before ambulances, causing confusion, Armstrong said. Others would show up at the scene just to gawk.

"Some of the concerns we had were people that were showing up just to see what was going on," he said.

Kingston stopped sending data to PulsePoint in mid-September after officials grew concerned about privacy and public safety.

Initially, the app was intended to notify only bystanders trained in CPR and near a public defibrillator, the City of Kingston said. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

New version on the way

Kingston does not plan to resume sending data through PulsePoint until a new version of the app is completed in the coming weeks.

The updated PulsePoint will only notify users of people in cardiac arrest in public areas, like on roads, in parks or at public events, and will only show the general area of other emergencies as a way to keep the public informed.

When Kingston first began using PulsePoint in 2015, the app would only notify people trained to perform CPR to a person in medical distress within 500 metres of their location and the location of the nearest public defibrillator. 

'Enabling citizen superheroes'

PulsePoint describes itself on its own website as "enabling citizen superheroes."

In a statement to CBC, Shannon Smith, vice-president of communications for PulsePoint, said the non-profit is working with Armstrong to "expand our service in the region while making adjustments to meet local needs and concerns."

"The PulsePoint Foundation has taken a revolutionary approach to improving situational awareness to build safer, stronger, and more resilient communities. We continue to learn from our agencies and users as to what works best," Smith wrote.

According to PulsePoint, the app is used in 3,675 communities.

With files from Laura Glowacki

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