Using an Amazon Echo/Alexa Unit to Call for Emergency Help

Speaking as one who had surprising difficulties summoning the Fire Brigade during my own kitchen fire, being able to use an Echo device to get help in an emergency has a lot of appeal.

If you live alone, there is – or, at least, should be – always a thought in the back of your mind – “How can I call for help/dial 911 in an emergency if I can’t reach my phone?”.  Maybe you’ve fallen, broken a limb, and can’t move.  A phone, just out of reach, is no good to you in that case.

Even if you don’t live alone 24/7, there will be times when you are alone and with no expectation of other people returning for some hours, possibly longer.  This is even more the case for those of us working from home these days, with an extra eight hours each day of potentially alone time as compared to being in an office with coworkers all around.

As our society ages, there is increased possibility of needing help unexpectedly, although disaster in many forms can strike anyone, at any time.  Happily, with the growing “intelligence” of electronic devices, solutions for the problem of summoning emergency help are starting to appear.  For example, an Apple Watch can intelligently detect what it thinks to be you falling, and will ask if you want it to call for help, with the default action, if you don’t or can’t reply, being to place the emergency call (assuming it can connect with your phone or has a built in phone feature).

Some people suggest that as long as their cell phone is at hand, they’re well covered and they don’t need anything else.  That is true, but “Murphy’s Law” comes into play.  Inevitably, the time you unexpectedly need help will be the time you don’t have your cell phone with you.  Maybe you left it in another room, or it is in the charger, or something/anything somewhere/anywhere other than where you are when you desperately most need it.

Recognizing this issue, there are dedicated emergency help/medical alert “buttons” that you can wear on your wrist or around your neck all the time.  These of course cost money to buy, and may cost additional money for each month of service.  Here is a good roundup/review of such devices.

There’s another easy way to add some reassurance to your home environment – by making use of an Amazon Alexa voice controlled Echo unit.  With the small Echo Dot units listing for $50 and often on sale for $35 or less, and the previous (3rd) generation Echo Dot units (which are just as good as the newest fourth generation “sphere” shaped units) often being sold for even less, this is a low cost approach that can work well.  Best of all, many of us already have Echo units in our homes, meaning it costs you nothing at all to add this functionality.

The distinctive thing about using an Echo device rather than other devices is that you don’t need to be physically in contact with the Echo.  As long as you can call out to it, and hopefully hear back from it, it can help connect you with emergency services.

How to Make Phone Calls With Amazon Echo Alexa Devices

There are two main ways to make a phone call with any Alexa device, such as the Echo Dot.

  • Say “Alexa, dial (and then the phone number you want Alexa to call)”.  But please note you can not say “Alexa, dial 911” unless you have an Echo Connect added.  For reasons best known to Amazon, they have blocked this and other three-digit service numbers.

  • Say “Alexa, call (and then the name of a contact in Alexa’s contact list)”.

This second approach begs the question – does Alexa have access to your phone’s contact list?

Adding Your Contacts to Your Alexa Service

In order to be able to call one of your contacts, you of course first need to connect Alexa to your phone’s contact list.  This is not done automatically, you need to give permission to the Alexa app to access and share your contact information.

Probably you have already done this as part of installing and setting up the Alexa app (which you surely did or will do when first setting up your first Echo unit).  But you should check.  One easy way to check is to say “Alexa, call (and then the name of a contact in your list of contacts – someone you might call in an emergency)”.  If Alexa responds positively, then you should be okay.  But if it doesn’t, you need to check your Alexa settings.

Go to your Alexa app, tap the Communicate option at the bottom of the screen, then on the next screen tap the person shaped icon in the top-right.

This will open a list of your Alexa contacts (assuming there is one).  Now tap the three dot icon in the top right, and the next screen will show an option “Import Contacts”.  It might say “Enabled”; and if it does, you’ll probably have noticed on the previous screen a lot of contacts appearing.  If it does not say “Enabled” (or even if it does) you can choose the Import Contacts option, and on the screen that next appears, turn on the “Import Contacts” option.

You only need to set this option once, and it will be remembered.  Alexa will monitor your phone’s contact list, and any time you add/change any of your contacts, Alexa will quickly update its copy of the contact.

Calling Multiple Contacts

A potential problem when you call one specific person/contact is if you can’t get through.  Maybe they don’t answer, or maybe you get a busy signal.  You then have to switch to another number and another and another until you finally get through to someone, somewhere.

There are a number of Alexa skills that can speed this process up and call multiple numbers simultaneously, passing on a message to anyone/everyone who answers.  Two helpful ones I found are :

My SOS Family  and their website here

Ask My Buddy and their website here

Both have a free version and a more extensively featured pay version.

There are other ways to do the same thing – you could get a virtual phone number and have it forward to multiple other numbers, all ringing concurrently, for example, but one of these Alexa skills is perhaps the easiest way for most people.

Alexa Guard Plus

Another approach has recently been released by Amazon itself, what it calls Alexa Guard Plus.  This costs $5/month or $50/year, although it has a 30 day free trial.

Guard Plus offers several types of services.  It acts as a type of burglar alarm, and can also make your home seem occupied by turning lights on and off in realistic sequences each evening.  But, for this article, the most relevant feature is that, once you’ve activated the service, you just need to say “Alexa, call for help” and you’ll be quickly connected to a service center where an agent will talk to you, work out what your problem is, and then call the necessary responders to help you.

We find ourselves wondering if selling the $50 a year Guard Plus service is why Amazon blocks your ability to directly call 911.

Omnipresent Echo Devices?

In case it isn’t obvious, your Echo devices will only be able to help you if they can hear you.  To be sure of this, you probably need multiple devices, depending on the size of your home.

For example, if you’re in the bathroom, with the door closed and the water running, it is unlikely an Alexa device somewhere else in the house will hear you if you have an emergency, and this uncertainty would be magnified if, as a result of the emergency, you’re unable to shout out in a strong clear voice.

We’re not saying you need an Alexa device in every room of your home, but we are saying you should test to see how well you can connect to and command your Echo units from around your home.  Maybe you need to get one or two more, or maybe you need to slightly change the positions of the units you already have.

The Echo Connect

For a while, Amazon was selling an excellent and inexpensive device – the Echo Connect – that connected Alexa to your landline, and allowed Alexa to respond to incoming calls and also to place outgoing calls for you on your landline.

Sadly, Amazon discontinued the sale of this device.  It was probably an awkward crossover device between old technologies – landlines – and new technologies – cell phones and VoIP type calling, and we sense Amazon quickly lost interest in the device and many potential buyers failed to understand how it could be helpful.

We have one and love it, and urge you to look for one on eBay or Craigslist or wherever, and if you can find one at a sensible price (it listed for $35 and was sometimes discounted substantially while Amazon had them for sale), consider buying it.

The benefit of the Echo Connect is you can use it to call 911 directly (simply say “Alexa, dial 911”), and because it uses your landline to call out with, the 911 operator will see all the details and address information associated with your landline.  Which brings up an important point.

Location Services

Keep in mind that when making a call using your Alexa/Echo devices, that call goes via the internet on a VoIP type call, not via your cell phone or landline.

While it does send your associated cell phone’s number for caller ID purposes, it doesn’t send any location based data, except for possibly the address you registered your Amazon account with and/or maybe the device your cell phone service is registered too, but those addresses may or may not be where you are at the time of your emergency.

Many Other Uses for your Echo Devices

Using your Echo devices can also be helpful when you want to make “normal” phone calls too!

And not only that.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Echo units, they are great for very many different things – we discuss and detail some Echo/Alexa uses in this article.  This article in turn links to other articles we’ve written discussing the devices and their uses, and to listings of useful commands and how to invoke them.

Summary

Although you can’t use an Echo device to directly call 911 unless you sign up for Amazon’s “Guard Plus” service ($50/year) there are a number of other ways you can use your Echo device(s) to contact other people and summon help in an emergency.  Good to know, just in case, and good to optimize/prepare for, again, just in case.

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