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Amazon’s Alexa can’t call 911. But a sheriff claims it did

In New Mexico, a sheriff’s department says a smart speaker helped stopped a domestic violence dispute. Amazon says that's impossible.

The Echo and the Echo Dot, two smart speakers that use Amazon's Alexa voice assistant.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The Bernalillo County Sheriff's department received a disturbing 911 call on July 2 at about 10 p.m.

A mother and her child were held hostage at gunpoint in their New Mexico home, after Eduardo Barros allegedly hit the parent in the face with a handgun. While they were held hostage, the sheriff's department said, the victims were able to contact law enforcement through Alexa, Amazon's smart assistant that works through speakers like the Echo and on Amazon tablets, as well as devices with the Alexa app.

"In the recording, you can hear her screaming, 'Alexa, call 911,'" said the department's public information officer, Felicia Romero.

The county sheriff, Manuel Gonzales III, lauded the smart assistant for being able to contact police in a dire situation, ending a six-hour standoff between the alleged suspect and the local authorities.

"This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation," Gonzales said in a statement.

But there's one massive problem with the whole story: Alexa can't call 911.

See it for yourself on this Echo simulator. Here's what happens when you ask Alexa to call 911.

Smart speakers are having a breakthrough moment of sorts, with a big push by leading tech companies and a welcome embrace by consumers. Amazon has a two-year head start with its expanding lineup of Alexa-powered Echo devices and partnerships with dozens of smart-home device makers. Google started selling its competing voice-activated Google Home late last year. Apple plans to release its HomePod speaker in December.

Amazon's Alexa is useful for a handful of tricks. You can set a timer, play music and turn on your lights, but it can't call police. Amazon rolled out a new calling feature in May, but it only works between Echo devices or the Alexa app, which means that Alexa wouldn't be able to call real phone numbers, like 911.

There are a handful of IFTTT commands for your Alexa to make calls, but it's only for your own phone, not an outside landline. It's not the same as asking Siri or Google Assistant on your phones to call 911, because they actually have a mobile network attached to them.

"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," an Amazon spokeswoman said in an email.

Similarly, the Google Home smart speaker doesn't make phone calls yet, a Google spokeswoman said.

The sheriff's department in New Mexico did not have an Echo device or app set up for the call on July 2. Amazon declined to comment on whether it's building an emergency call system for Alexa.

'Did you call the sheriff?'

The sheriff's report, released Monday, applauded the smart device's features, but it doesn't match up with what the technology can actually do.

Deputies said that the smart home device was voice-activated after Barros threatened the victim, and asked, "Did you call the sheriff?" The police report stated that the Echo heard "call the sheriff" and dialed out to 911.

The Echo and Echo Dot are only voice-activated through wake words including "Alexa" or "Echo," and do not process requests unless activated, Amazon said. "Did you" is not listed as a wake word for Amazon's smart speakers.

Also on the police report, the victim can be heard yelling "Alexa, call 911" on the call recording. It's unclear why someone would ask their smart speaker to call 911 if they are already on the phone with police.

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

Romero said the smart speaker was connected to the victim's home phone system. Amazon said that's impossible.

"The Alexa calling and messaging service is not able to connect to third-party calling services or landlines to make a 911 call," an Amazon spokeswoman said.

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