When and How to Respond to an Emergency If You’re CPR Certified

Don't skip the training for fear of being sued

Every year, at least 350,000 people go into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting. Of those, around 90% do not survive. Knowing how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and having the confidence to administer it saves lives. In fact, an estimated 45% of people who go into cardiac arrest will survive because a bystander gave them CPR.

Being trained and certified to perform CPR is one thing, but doing so without fear or hesitation is another. Addressing any reluctance you have before a situation arises may help you stay safe while saving someone's life.

First-aider practicing chest compressions on CPR dummy

What Does It Mean to Be Certified?

There are a variety of CPR certifications that you can earn online or in a classroom setting. Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Red Cross offer courses that are designed to help participants recognize and respond to cardiac emergencies. These certifications are generally valid in any state for two years.

The modules you take will depend on your certification. For example, if you are a first responder or a daycare provider, your training may be contextualized to fit your field. There are also courses for the general public and people whose employer requires them to get certified to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Whichever course you choose, expect to learn more than the technical aspects of administering CPR.

Training will likely touch on:

  • The ins and outs of Good Samaritan laws and how they can protect you from legal liability if you choose to provide care
  • How to identify the difference between expressed consent and implied consent
  • What you need to know to reduce the risk of disease transmission when administering CPR

Whether your course is self-directed or guided by an instructor, you will typically need to complete a sequence of training modules and hands-on simulations. You will then be tested with an in-person demonstration of your skills, and possibly a written exam.

Most CPR certifications are valid for two years, but according to the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, only 50% of people can pass a CPR skills test one year after earning their certification. Keep your skills sharp by renewing your certification often.

Do You Have to Perform CPR?

Rescuers who are part of an organized ambulance agency, fire department, law enforcement organization, or rescue squad have what is known as a duty to act and are usually bound to provide help.

Vermont's Good Samaritan law requires rescuers to help in the case of an emergency, and those who do not help face a fine of $100. Training of any sort is not mentioned in Vermont law. In other words: Being trained does not require that you help, but you might want to help so you can save a person's life.

In all other 49 states, whether or not you choose to administer CPR is up to you. Every second counts in an emergency situation. But while it is critical that you act swiftly, it's also important that you provide reasonable care.

Reasonable Care

To help protect yourself from liability, be cautious and attentive of your surroundings and avoid anything that could endanger you or the person you are rescuing. Do not involve yourself in a situation if it is not safe.

Good Samaritan Laws

Every state has Good Samaritan laws to protect people who provide voluntary medical care to a victim of a medical emergency. This protection is intended, in part, to encourage people to help others without fear of being sued—so long as they are not reckless or negligent with the care they provide.

To qualify for the protection of Good Samaritan laws, there are three things you must do before providing someone with emergency medical care:

  • Ask for consent. The person must verbally express their consent or consent with body language. If they are unconscious or non-responsive, don't hesitate. Assume they want your help.
  • Only do what you're trained to do. If you choose to give someone CPR and have been trained, give them CPR; but do not reset their shoulder or perform any other medical procedure that you are not trained for.
  • Provide care voluntarily. Good Samaritan laws may not protect you if you accept a gift for your help. Only volunteer to help if you do not expect compensation.

Attempting CPR Without a Certification

You do not need formal training or a certification to perform CPR on a person in cardiac arrest. If you see someone who needs help, you are encouraged to ask for consent to provide care, regardless of the status of your CPR credentials. Your ability to jump in and use your skills quickly matter more than the date of completion on your certification.

Common Concerns

Taking command of an emergency situation by offering to administer CPR is brave. If you have ever felt nervous or reluctant about having to use CPR, you're not alone.

Fear of Being Sued

If you are worried about injuring someone while performing CPR, keep in mind that your risk of being sued is significantly higher if you do not intervene.

To study the legal risk of bystanders who rescue, researchers reviewed 274 cases between 1989 and 2019 where the use or non-use of CPR led to a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. In 64% of the lawsuits, the bystander either provided inadequate CPR or did not perform CPR quickly enough. Additionally, more than $620 million had been issued in settlements where CPR was delayed—in contrast to the $120,000 that was issued in damages from performing CPR.

The overall sentiment is that it's best to help, but it also doesn't hurt to be trained at what you're doing, either.

Fear of Disease

In 2020, the AHA issued guidelines for managing disease spread when administering CPR. The guidelines were written in light of COVID-19, but the principles are relevant to any other respiratory illness that may be present.

Emphasized are the following:

  • Make sure you always have a mask that you can easily grab, and consider keeping a pair of glasses close that can shield your eyes.
  • Know that you do not need to perform mouth-to-mouth. Cover the person's face with a cloth and use hands-only CPR to minimize your risk of coming into contact with a communicable disease.
  • Any other bystanders who are willing to perform CPR should stand at a reasonable distance away until they are needed to take over.

Fear of Making a Mistake

Any time you need to use CPR, you will be taking a chance; there's a chance you will succeed and there is a chance you will not. You can train and be certified as much as you want, but if you aren't willing to "fail," none of your training will matter. Remind yourself that being afraid does not mean you can't help, and accept that you may not be able to save everyone.

As with most things in life, the more prepared you are, the less afraid you will be. In addition to keeping your CPR certification current, it may ease your fears to occasionally rehearse scenarios in your mind where you safely perform CPR and save a life.

Being Prepared

Time has a way of slowing down when an emergency situation unfolds. Before you spring into action, take a deep breath.

Then cautiously move through the steps to perform rescue breathing:

  • Be careful and reasonable when sizing up a situation. Make sure there are no hazards that could injure you, such as passing cars or falling objects.
  • Ask for consent. If the person is unconscious or non-responsive, their consent is implied. Call 911 and begin resuscitation.
  • Use your skills to the best of your ability and do not attempt anything that you are not trained for.
  • Don't expect to be rewarded for your help. To qualify for protection under Good Samaritan laws, your care must be voluntary.
  • Your safety comes first, every time. If you are reckless or negligent when providing care, your actions could have grave consequences for everyone involved.

Using Defibrillators

An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a device that can detect when someone is going into cardiac arrest and send an electric shock to restore their heart's rhythm. These devices are made to be easy for the general public to use and anyone can purchase a device for their home or organization.

Using an AED with CPR can greatly increase a person's chance of survival, but there are some precautions.

For example:

  • Never deliver an electric shock to someone who is wet or lying in water.
  • To use an AED if the person has a pacemaker, the pads should be placed adjacent to the pacemaker and not directly on it.
  • Remove any medication patches they may be wearing before attaching the AED pads.
  • Always ensure that nobody is touching the person receiving an electric shock.

Hands-on experience is invaluable. If you are intimidated by the prospect of using an AED, many certification courses include AED training modules that you can take to feel more prepared.

Post-Certification Training

Administering CPR safely and effectively isn't quite like riding a bike. This is skill set that you will want to sharpen routinely, especially if you live or work with someone at risk of cardiac arrest.

Online training certifications like those provided by the Red Cross are good for keeping you up-to-date on techniques and best practices. However, hands-on training is preferable; without passing an in-person skills test, you may not meet workplace safety requirements. Furthermore, gaining tactile experience will help you feel more prepared and deliberate if you eventually need to apply your skills.

The Red Cross and the American Heart Association aren't the only two places where you can receive great training. Your local YMCA or recreation center may offer classes in person or online, and if CPR training is required for your job, your employer should be able to point you in the right direction. Most fire departments offer regular CPR courses that you can attend, too, and getting to hear the real-world experience of first responders could be useful for you later on.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there standard requirements for CPR certification courses?

No, CPR certification is not regulated by the state or federal government, so there are no overarching standards or national accreditation. That means that not all CPR courses are equal. OSHA does state that online-only CPR training is insufficient, and individual employers may require specific training courses for employees. Healthcare professionals such as EMTs and nurses are required to be licensed, which ensures that they receive a standard level of training in CPR and other skills required for their jobs.

How do I get recertified in CPR?

If your two-year CPR certification has expired, you're required to take another full training course. If your certification hasn't expired, you can take an abridged renewal course through the organization that first certified you, such as the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association. These organizations have different requirements for in-person and online training for renewal and recertification, so check their websites for details.

A Word From Verywell

You probably didn't earn your CPR certification because you wanted to be a bystander. If there's a reason you don't feel confident, look to see if there's a solution for your worries. After renewing your CPR credentials, acquaint yourself with the Good Samaritan laws in your location.

If you're still on the fence about renewing your CPR certification, remind yourself that being certified doesn't require you to go out and save lives. No matter what situation you are in, remember that you have options and your safety always comes first.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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