If you have never been in the unfortunate situation of having to call 911 for a medical emergency, it may sound surprising that up until recently 911 operators in Rhode Island did not receive CPR training, let alone training on how to assist callers in providing CPR to victims while first responders are on their way. Giving CPR assistance to callers over the phone has come to be known as ‘telecommunicator cardiopulmonary resuscitation’ or T-CPR for short. The new Rhode Island legislation, which passed on September 7, 2021, rectifies this issue.
The new law has been dubbed the “911 Emergency Telephone Number Act,” and it requires all 911 system operators be trained in T-CPR by September 1, 2022 and receive continuing education courses to maintain their training up-to-date. In addition, the Act also establishes a call review and quality improvement program for emergency telephone systems which is meant to closely track the implementation of this new law and make sure it is accomplishing its purpose. When speaking in support of the Act, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee explained that, “This legislation allows telecommunicators to utilize precious time and make the difference that could save a life… and help our first responders and all public safety staff do their jobs quickly and effectively. This legislation will save lives.”
Into the bargain also comes civil immunity for all system operators who face allegations of ordinary negligence or potential civil damages. Specifically, the Act states:
“No 911 system operator who renders emergency assistance to a person in need thereof shall be liable for civil damages which result from acts or omissions by such person rendering the emergency care, which may constitute ordinary negligence. This immunity does not apply to acts or omission constituting gross negligence or willful or wanton conduct.”
In other words, civil liability will attach only if the person acts with an intention to cause harm, or with a high degree of reckless disregard for the safety of others. Something that is highly unlikely in the case of 911 operators whose whole purpose is to assist callers in case of an emergency, and who are vetted at hiring with that purpose in mind.
According to Gov. McKee, the legislation was introduced following incidents where bystanders did not receive proper instruction from 911 dispatchers to perform CPR during a medical emergency. To a layperson it may appear as common sense to have 911 operators be able to provide clear and concise step-by-step instruction on how to act during an emergency, but the reality is that—up until recently—the role of these operators was primarily that of sending the appropriate first responders to the scene rather than being able to serve as first responders themselves. Now, the Act will ensure that all emergency operators are properly trained in CPR, including the use of an AED when the caller has one available, and their new role can be the difference between life and death for many people.
Chief Craig E. Stanley, South Kingstown EMS stated,
“The new Telecommunicator CPR law for 911 operators is vital in the survival of those experiencing Sudden Cardiac Arrest. The new law will allow 911 operators to provide CPR instructions to callers. Getting bystanders to start CPR prior to the arrival of first responders will have a significant increase in the survivability of a Sudden Cardiac Arrest. What saves lives is early CPR and ready available AED’s. Having this mechanism in place will save lives.”
The Act and its supporters must be commended for its forethought and willingness to put protections in place for 911 operators, while simultaneously ensuring that their role in the lifesaving chain of emergency responders is properly utilized and valued. RI, however, is not the first state to put these types of regulations in place. At least six states already require 911 operators to be trained in T-CPR, according to the American Heart Association. They are Louisiana, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, West Virginia and Maryland. Texas was also added to the list on September 1, 2021. This appears to be the continuation of a trend that is gathering strength and support across the country, particularly in light of parallel legislation regarding availability of AEDs in businesses, health clubs, educational institutions and government buildings alike. Hopefully the results will speak for themselves and the remaining states will follow suit.