The Digital Age Meets the Duty To Act

Today’s burning question: I was in your class at FDIC 2014 on Duty to Act, which was a real eye-opener. We were discussing it in the station today and one of the paramedics mentioned a smartphone app called PulsePoint, that can notify you if someone nearby is having a heart attack. Doesn’t that raise some duty to act questions?


For those not familiar, Pulsepoint is a smartphone app which the developers explain as follows:

“PulsePoint empowers individuals, within covered communities, with the ability to provide life-saving assistance to victims of cardiac arrest. Application users who have indicated they are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) are notified if someone nearby is having a cardiac emergency and may require CPR. If the medical emergency is in a public place, the application uses sophisticated location-based services to alert trained citizens in the immediate vicinity of the need for CPR. The application also directs these citizen rescuers to the exact location of the closest public access Automated External Defibrillator (AED).”

As envisioned, when an emergency dispatcher becomes aware of a patient in the community needing CPR, the app is used to notify those who have registered who are nearby. Ingenious!!! It is a phenomenal idea that no doubt has the potential to save countless lives.

But let’s think it through from the duty to act perspective using case history to guide us.

The poster child for a duty to act case gone-wrong involves the two FDNY EMTs who went into an Au Bon Pain on December 9, 2009 at about the time an employee, Eutisha Rennix, began having an asthma attack. Rennix was pregnant at the time, and she and her baby died.

Her family alleged that the two EMTs ignored her as they sat drinking coffee and eating bagels claiming to be on a coffee break. The truth… well that is an entirely different story from what the family alleged: the EMTs were actually dispatchers who were on a coffee break from the dispatch center. They were standing in line getting coffee to go and were recognized by Au Bon Pain employees as dispatchers. They were not asked to help the woman – but rather they were merely asked to summons an ambulance – which they did indeed do. The resulting firestorm of outrage brought on by Ms. Rennix’s grieving family resulted in criminal charges, disciplinary actions, and civil suits being filed.

The Au Bon Pain case is useful for us as we start to consider the implications of the new technology. So let’s think of the implications:

While enroute to a CO alarm an on-duty firefighter is notified by the app that someone is having a heart attack on the very street he is on. The truck does not stop but proceeds on the run as dispatched, and the heart attack victim dies. Might the family spin the story as we saw in the Au Bon Pain case?

What about a paramedic driving to work… does she have a duty to respond to the app? Does it matter if she is within the boundaries of the community that she works for or is in a neighboring community? If she is under a duty to act and she is injured, is she covered by workers comp? What if she is off duty… does she have a duty to act?? What is the impact of having a few adult beverages to the duty to act???

Lots to ponder. Here is more on the app:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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