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Opinion: Increase cardiac arrest outcomes by updating police dispatch protocols

We lose 1,000 Americans a day to sudden cardiac arrest – here’s how cops could help


Law enforcement’s fast response times gives them an upper hand on managing time-sensitive medical emergencies.

Photo/Griffith Blue Heart

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Imagine watching your significant other or child collapse in front of you from an electrical malfunction in their heart. When you call 911 to get emergency assistance, you assume the closest trained first responder would be sent to your aid.

Now imagine that the first responder whose highest priority is the preservation of life is only a couple of blocks away from you but they do not get notified by their dispatch that you need help. This happens every single day across the United States because of 911 dispatch protocols.

As first responders, police officers are required to be trained and continuously re-certified in cardio-cerebral resuscitation (“hands-only CPR”) and the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs). Even though police officers have significantly faster response times than fire and EMS, in a lot of cities they aren’t even getting dispatched to unresponsive patients because they are labeled as “medical calls.”

Dead for 16 minutes

I write this article not only as a proud police officer of the state of Arizona but as a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) survivor. I was 26 years old when I went into cardiac arrest at home in front of my wife. As I collapsed into our bookshelf and put my head through our den wall, my wife recognized I was dying and immediately called 9-1-1. She began CPR on me and continued until help arrived.

The first responder was a fellow police officer who was properly dispatched to my home when I dropped dead. The officer beat fire and EMS by several minutes and took over compressions for my wife. He did a phenomenal job using his training to help my wife profuse my brain and vital organs until paramedics could get on scene.

The fire department later arrived and delivered advanced life support care and used an AED to successfully resuscitate me. I was medically dead for approximately 16 minutes, and I’m grateful to have been given a second chance.

Reversing sudden cardiac arrest

Approximately 1,000 Americans die each day from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) leading to half a million deaths each year. The only effective treatment for sudden cardiac arrest is cardio-cerebral resuscitation (CCR) and a shock from an AED administered as quickly as possible.

A sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack. Heart attacks occur when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood flow to a section of the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart has an electrical malfunction disrupting blood flow to the brain, lungs, and vital organs.

The American Heart Association reports that for every minute a person is in cardiac arrest, their chance of successful resuscitation decreases by 7%-10%. With cardiac arrest, every second counts. Defibrillation within three to four minutes can increase survival by up to 70%.

Patrol officers are perfectly positioned to assist

Police are on patrol 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Officers are spread out through their jurisdictions allowing them to rapidly respond to emergencies from decentralized locations. Being in the field when dispatched, allows officers to respond to calls for service faster than fire and EMS. Unlike fire and EMS crews, police officers can leave non-priority calls such as barking dog calls or noise complaints to respond to higher priority emergencies. Due to advocate response, Fire and EMS personnel cannot leave a patient to respond to another medical incident without getting their current patient the proper care they need, (although an inbound crew can be diverted to a higher priority). When the closest fire and EMS crew is tending to a patient, the next closest unit gets dispatched, which can severely impact response times.


Defibrillation within three to four minutes of a sudden cardiac arrest can increase survival by up to 70%.

Photo/Griffith Blue Heart

Municipal police agencies tend to have 1-4 ½ minute response times to their highest priority calls for service. Law enforcement’s faster response times gives them an upper hand on managing time-sensitive medical emergencies like cardiac incidents and hemorrhaging (massive blood loss).

Fire and EMS have response time goals of six minutes to 90% of their 9-1-1, which is an NFPA1710 recommendation. Most fire departments are not currently at that goal and it is not uncommon for 8-12-minute response times. When seconds count, help is minutes away. It is so crucial officers get dispatched to 911 calls where someone is not breathing or is unresponsive. Too often, a 911 call comes in and gets strictly labeled a “fire” or “medical” call and officers who are around the corner on a traffic stop or patrolling aren’t even aware they could have responded and helped save a life.

Fire and EMS need to be dispatched first to medical emergencies to get advanced life support to patients as quickly as possible. However, there is a definite need to enhance communications protocols to dispatch police officers at the same time as fire and EMS to significantly impact the survivability of cardiac emergencies.

When you call 911 a dispatcher usually answers, “911 what’s your emergency?” and they separate the call by police/fire/medical. Once an unresponsive person call gets labeled as a “fire/medical” call, then too often, police officers aren’t even dispatched. Co-dispatching police officers to these calls would better serve the residents of their jurisdictions. Police are calm, trained professionals who thrive under pressure and are eager to save lives. When civilians have not received training in hands-only CPR or hesitate to act, police can arrive and at least initiate compressions if not utilize an AED prior to fire/ems arrival.

Four out of five sudden cardiac arrest incidents happen in the home making it vital our officers are co-dispatched to unresponsive person(s) calls. Officers constantly patrol the neighborhoods of their communities giving them the advantage to use their life-saving training to make a larger impact as public servants. Everything we do is to save lives and better our communities. We write traffic tickets to prevent fatal accidents. We arrest drug dealers to prevent overdoses. We get those in crisis mental health help to prevent them from hurting or killing themselves or others. By changing dispatch protocols, we could also take on the killer that is sudden cardiac arrest.


NFPA® 1710 Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments 2010 Edition.

Brandon Griffith is the founder and CEO of Griffith Blue Heart, a 501.c(3) nonprofit that specializes in preparing, training and equipping law enforcement for time-sensitive medical emergencies, like cardiac arrest, emergency hemorrhage control, overdoses, drownings, etc. Brandon is a leading expert on police resuscitation, a sheriff’s deputy for Pinal County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, a multi-disciplined instructor, a former EMT, and an out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest survivor.