Google feature lets you communicate with a 911 operator without speaking

Calling 911 in an emergency isn’t always as straightforward as you might imagine. There could, for example, be a situation in which the caller can’t speak, whether because of injury, danger, or perhaps due to a speech impairment.

Google revealed on Thursday, August 1, that it’s launching a new feature that will let you communicate with a 911 operator without uttering a word.

Available in the Phone app on Pixel and select Android devices (yet to be specified), the type of emergency assistance required can be communicated via an automated voice service that begins when the caller taps on one of the “Medical,” “Fire,” or “Police” buttons during a 911 call. Location information is also given.

So, if you tap, say, the Medical button, the operator will hear a message that goes like this: “You are being contacted by an automated voice service initiated by the caller. The caller may be unable to speak or hear. My locations is [address]. I require medical assistance.”

The service “works on device,” according to Google product manager Paul Dunlop, meaning that the information stays between only you and the emergency services. Dunlop added that the feature also works whether or not you have a data connection.

Additional location information is provided via the caller’s plus code, a clever system that attaches a unique “address” — which looks something like this: 8GHC2X69+76 — to every 3×3-square-meter part of the planet, making it easier to communicate a position away from buildings, using a code that’s considerably shorter than a GPS reading. A similar system to plus code that’s been gaining a lot of attention recently is What3Words, which uses three words to mark a specific spot, instead of a string of numbers and letters.

Once the caller connects with the operator using Google’s service, they still have the option to speak if it suddenly becomes possible. In other words, choosing the automated voice service doesn’t mute your handset’s microphone.

Dunlop said the new feature will become available in the U.S. in the coming months, beginning with Google’s Pixel phones.

He added: “We’ve been collecting feedback from public safety organizations, including the National Emergency Number Association, to make this feature as helpful as possible, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with the emergency services community to make people safer.”


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