Android, Google users must say 'Call 911' instead of asking for an ambulance

Ambulance dispatchers have noticed an alarming number of calls coming in from people with medical emergencies


Audrey Dutton
The Idaho Statesman

The panicked call came into dispatch around 4 a.m.

“My boyfriend is unresponsive,” said the woman on the phone. “He drank too much alcohol. I need an ambulance. I need an ambulance.”

When an iPhone user tells Siri, “Call an ambulance,” the phone begins to dial 911, with an option to cancel the call if it was a mistake. But when some Android phones are given that voice command, they pull up a list of ambulance companies. (Phone/Max Pixel)
When an iPhone user tells Siri, “Call an ambulance,” the phone begins to dial 911, with an option to cancel the call if it was a mistake. But when some Android phones are given that voice command, they pull up a list of ambulance companies. (Phone/Max Pixel)

The problem was, she hadn’t called 911 dispatchers. She had called a private ambulance company, and they couldn’t help her.

Meloni Reed was one of the dispatchers that night for Injury Care EMS, a Boise-based company that transports patients from place to place in its fleet of ambulances — helping patients safely get from the hospital to a nursing home, for example.

“I was like, honey, you need to call 911,” Reed said.

Reed and other dispatchers have noticed an alarming number of calls coming in from people with medical emergencies, and they believe it may be due to a problem with Android and Google smartphones.

Hey Siri, OK Google: Call an ambulance

When an iPhone user tells Siri, “Call an ambulance,” the phone begins to dial 911, with an option to cancel the call if it was a mistake.

But when some Android phones are given that voice command, they pull up a list of ambulance companies. In the Boise area, Injury Care is the first company in that list.

The Statesman confirmed that Android users in other parts of the country get a similar list when they ask their phones to call an ambulance. (Some Android and Google phones respond with Google search results, such as a blog post on when it’s appropriate to call an ambulance.)

Injury Care EMS owner Dr. Richard Radnovich and his dispatchers suspect that’s why they’re getting a steady trickle of calls meant for 911.

The mistaken calls happen several times a week, dispatchers told the Statesman.

One recently came in from a mother whose son drank too much, and she was trying to get paramedics to the house.

“It was a mom who was panicked, and she was trying to do the best she could to get an ambulance to her son, and we just happened to be the company that her phone had dialed,” said Rich Wright, an EMT student and the community liaison for Injury Care.

Android users must say, “Call 911”

Radnovich reached out to the Statesman because he sees this as a public safety issue. He also reached out to Google to alert them to the problem.

The Statesman contacted Google’s press office and asked if the Silicon Valley tech giant had received similar complaints, and if so, what it plans to do to address the issue.

“The supported query for the Google Assistant is ‘Hey Google, call 911,’” a Google spokeswoman told the Statesman by email. “This will trigger the Assistant to call 911. Asking the Assistant to ‘call an ambulance’ is not currently supported and we don’t encourage use of that voice command.”

Wright said the solution seems pretty simple: Make that voice command trigger a 911 call.

As for the people who call by mistake, Reed and Wright try to quickly explain that Injury Care can’t help and to dial 911 instead. But the exchange wastes precious seconds — or minutes, if callers don’t understand and need more explanation.

“We’d love to help them, but we have to stay within our guidelines, our scope of practice,” Wright said.

All the dispatchers can do, then, is hope the patient’s next call is the right one.

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©2019 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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