Amazon Claims Alexa on Echo Cannot Call 911 But Sheriff’s Dept in New Mexico Disagrees


On July 2, 2017 - the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department in New Mexico received a disturbing phone call. A mother with her child was being held a hostage at gunpoint. However, the mother somehow placed a phone call to 911, and the sheriff's department believes that she did it through Alexa, Amazon's smart assistant on her Echo smart speaker.

Felicia Romero from the sheriff's department's public information officer said,"In the recording, you can hear her screaming, 'Alexa, call 911," The county sheriff, Manuel Gonzales III, commended Alexa for helping out the victim in the moment of absolute need. "This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation," he said in a statement.

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However, there's one loophole in the story i.e. Alexa on Echo cannot call 911. We know that there have been stories about smart speakers pulling off the unexpected, but the claims by the sheriff's department are notwithstanding Alexa's capabilities - Amazon itself believes that Alexa is not equipped with the ability to call 911 in an emergency.

No doubt that Amazon's Alexa is good enough to do a variety of tasks like setting the alarm, timer, play music, control home lighting, but it just can't call police. Amazon did roll out a new calling feature in May, but it only works between Echo and Alexa app, which means that Alexa is not equipped with calling real phone numbers like 911. Also, there are plenty of IFTTT commands that can make Alexa place calls, but it's only limited to your own and not a landline.

It's not like asking Siri or Google assistant on your smartphone to call a number. The smart assistants on phones have access to the mobile network; therefore, they can very well place a call, including 911.

Commenting on the case, an Amazon spokeswoman said in an email,"The receiving end would also need to have an Echo device or the Alexa app connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data, and they would need to have Alexa calling/messaging set up,"

Sherrif's report still praises Alexa...

Regardless of what Alexa's makers say, the sheriff's report, released Monday, showered praises for Alexa and Echo. But all these claims are baseless as they just don't match up to the technology. The deputies said that Echo was voice-activated when the attacker threatened the mother and child, and asked,"Did you call the sheriff?" The police report says that Amazon's Echo heard the trigger phrase "call the sheriff" and dialled to 911.

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Wake words for Alexa

Well, even the claims mentioned above are not convincing as Amazon's Alexa on Echo gets voice-activated after it hears the wake words including "Alexa" or "Echo," it does not process any request without the wake words. And the attacker did not say "Alexa" or "Echo" while threatening the mother and child.

In a statement, Felicia Romero from the department said,"All we can confirm is that 911 was called, we have the recording, the victim stated that's what happened. We don't know what device it came from. I don't know how it did it." he said. 

Romero also said that the smart speaker was connected to the victim's home phone system, but Amazon says that it's impossible for Echo. On that statement, Amazon spokeswoman said,"The Alexa calling and messaging service is not able to connect to third-party calling services or landlines to make a 911 call,"

It is simply a case of the wrong assumption by the sheriff's department. Anyway, we are glad that the mother and child are safe.