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Can your smart speaker contact emergency services for you?

The Google Home and Amazon Alexa are powerhouses when it comes to controlling smart home devices, scheduling appointments, and even tasks like summoning an Uber before you head out the door. The devices have numerous applications in terms of helping senior citizens maintain their independence for longer, such as reminders to take medication and tele-doctor visits.

But Google Home and Amazon Alexa still lack that one thing that would make them a must-have in the home, a feature that would make people invest even if they have no other smart home devices — the ability to call 911. At present, neither Amazon Alexa nor Google Home can call 911 by default, although some users have modified their devices to be able to do so — and Google Home will soon be able to call emergency services.

Google Home will soon be able to call 911

Back in October, Google announced new subscription plans for Nest Aware subscribers. These plans will make the subscription more affordable, but also introduce the ability to call emergency services by saying, “Okay Google, call 911.” This ties into push notifications from smoke alarms and other home safety devices. It’s not clear when Google will make these Nest Aware subscriptions available, but doing so will give the Google Home a leg up over the competition.

Alexa can call 911 through the Echo Connect

The Echo Connect is a discontinued product that didn’t receive much acclaim from Alexa users, but it does have one notably useful skill: Connecting Alexa directly to a landline. By doing so, users can have Alexa call 911. The Echo Connect is hard to find these days, but you can still grab one used off of eBay or from another second-hand seller.

If you plan to buy an Echo Connect, or have one laying around, you can set it up to call 911 relatively easily. You can find step-by-step instructions here, in a piece Digital Trends published earlier this year. The only way this works is through a landline connection. Otherwise, Amazon Echo devices are unable to complete the call.

Amazon Echo Connect
Image used with permission by copyright holder

If you cannot get your hands on an Echo Connect, there is another option. The Alexa Skills “My SOS Family” and “Ask My Buddy” will not call 911, but can be used to alert an emergency contact that you need help. These skills can be used to contact one or more people who can get help when it’s needed. Just say, “Alexa, open My SOS Family and send for help,” or “Alexa, ask My Buddy to send help.” It isn’t a perfect solution, but in the event of an emergency can make a huge difference.

Siri can call 911

While Amazon Alexa and Google Home cannot yet call 911, Siri does not suffer the same problem. You can contact emergency services just by saying “Hey Siri, call 911,” or “Hey Siri, call emergency services.” This works even on the Apple HomePod, although the device attempts to use the iPhone you connected to it to complete the call. If your iPhone isn’t available, the HomePod attempts to pass the call off to another iPhone on the same network.

Why smart devices cannot call 911

There has long been discussion about why smart devices cannot contact 911. The underlying reason is somewhat complex. The 911 system was installed with landlines in mind, allowing emergency responders to zero in on a person’s location based on where the call came from. The call would be then routed to the appropriate station and help could arrive quickly.

The advent of cell phones muddied the waters a bit. Because cell towers are so spread out, calling 911 from a cell phone makes it difficult for first responders to locate exactly where the call originates from. Best practices for calling 911 from a cell phone include disclosing your location immediately, as well as any other pertinent information.

Much of the controversy surrounding smart assistants and 911 hinges on where the call will be routed and how responders will be able to locate the caller. However, the setup process for smart assistants includes entering an address. The address is used for services like pizza delivery, calling an Uber, and much more.

In time, this feature might come to smart speakers, although the functionality may be accompanied by a monthly charge.

The next step

Smart speakers have the potential to become a huge part of your home security system, but only if more features are added to them. At present, smart speakers can arm and disarm your security system, but what if triggering the system prompted Alexa to ask if you need help using its Whisper Mode? If smart speakers were able to use context clues to determine the situation, it’s feasible that Amazon Echo and Google Home might one day be able to act as detectors for burglaries in progress and contact emergency services on your behalf.

The base features are already there. Smart speakers can provide different responses to different people via Voice Recognition. It is possible that one day a smart speaker could listen for unusual voices when none of the usual users were around and set off an alarm, or contact emergency services, acting as a last line of defense if the rest of the system fails.

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Patrick Hearn
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Patrick Hearn writes about smart home technology like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, smart light bulbs, and more. If it's a…
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