Blog Post

How Siri could revolutionize the 911 system

Emergency Call

In health care we face numerous challenges. One that is being tackled by the FCC, Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation is the limited nature of our emergency 911 system. Currently, if one is dialing from a cellphone, chances are that 911 cannot automatically find their location. And the only way to contact 911 is the traditional way — by telephone.

All of that is about to change. Next Generation 911 will allow for communications to be made by voice, video or text. Location will automatically be appended to voice calls, saving time and confusion when the caller doesn’t know where they’re location is — or isn’t able to verbally communicate it.

As someone who analyzes health policy (with a focus on long-term services and supports), I believe that Siri, Apple’s (s AAPL) recently introduced natural language voice technology, has the potential to change not just our 911 system, but also to be one of the biggest consumer-facing technologies in health care that we’ve seen in decades.

Emergency health care today

Imagine this scenario: an elderly person is having a cardiac event. She is having trouble breathing and is unable to complete a sentence. Dialing 911 is possible, but if the caller is unable to narrate the condition, first responders would still be in the dark until they arrive.

Even after they do arrive, information still eludes them: some critical — including prior medical history, current medications and allergic reactions to medicines — and some logistical, such as health insurance and next of kin.

The future: A Siri-enabled 911

Siri’s main features – its ability to understand natural language and its quick and contextual deep search, information retrieval and task completion – could drastically change all this.

Once the word “emergency” is spoken to Siri, a range of beneficial activity could commence. First, the phone could video call 911 utilizing Skype or a similar VoIP video service. This would allow first responders to have a much better context of the emergency at hand. Armed with a live video and audio feed of the event, visual cues could assist the first responders as they deconstruct the problem. Second, Siri could send the GPS location of the caller.

Third, an app could automatically transmit critical information to the nearest hospital. First Choice Healthcare already has an app that gathers this information – primary care physician, current medications and any drug allergies – for a patient heading to the ER. Depending on the patient’s physician, it’s possible that the patient’s entire electronic health record (EHR) loaded into the app (or otherwise shared with authorized medical personnel) as well.

Lastly, Siri could send a text or email to the chosen next of kin, letting them know that an emergency has transpired and their family member is being transported to the closest hospital (with the address included).

That may sound a bit out of place considering Siri can’t even dial 911 right now. But the reason for that is simple: Apple hasn’t instituted a way of authenticating that a call is real and not a prank. However with video and the additional information appended to the call (again, including location), the chances of a prank dial are miniscule.

Now compare the two pictures. Which patient has a better chance of surviving the cardiac event? More than 300,000 people die from sudden cardiac events each year in the U.S. A large portion of these are preventable, not only due to lifestyle changes but also, in part, because of the nature of the emergency response and the preparation on the part of the individual. These are both areas where Siri, along with Next Generation 911, could play a fascinating role.

Siri beyond 911

But it’s not just emergency care that could be transformed with Siri. a few other uses also come to mind. Such challenges include home health monitoring and assistance.

Millions of elderly adults are living at home and are unable to fully complete needed daily tasks. They may receive some assistance for a portion of the day from a licensed health care professional, but many still only have a family member or friend stop by and assist. Regardless of what kind of help they get, after the help leaves, they may struggle to remember when to take prescribed medication and treatments, they could forget doctors’ appointments, and they may not be able to keep their family fully in the loop (until the next visit or major event happens). Worst of all, they are more susceptible to injury or worse when a medical emergency transpires.

Siri and the convergence of disparate tools

There are numerous gadgets geared toward this population. But not only are they pricey, they are also far less personal and much harder to use than Siri. Siri requires holding down the home button (the only button available on the face of an iPhone) and speaking. Who couldn’t remember to do that?

At the tap of a button, Siri will be able to set and vocalize reminders for when to take pills, can initiate video check-ups with family and care providers, and can begin a smooth chain reaction of events that would otherwise require far more time and energy to do — two things our elderly, chronically ill population have the least of.

This transition to home health care will only become more common as states look to pivot from providing the bulk of the care in institutions to care being provided in homes and communities. People not only are happier when they live at home but they also live longer, feel better, and react better to treatments. If that were not enough, institutional care is far too costly. Long-term services currently account for, on average, “one-third of state Medicaid budgets,” and 58 percent of it is spent on institutional care, according to Lewin Consulting, a preeminent health consulting firm (PDF download).

Clearly it won’t just be Siri alone in this revolution of health care. Many more services will be created, and many more similar innovations are on the horizon. But every revolution needs its leader, and Siri is undoubtedly it.

John S. Wilson is a health policy analyst and editor of PolicyDiary, a weekly health policy blog. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @johnswilson1

28 Responses to “How Siri could revolutionize the 911 system”

  1. I haven’t think about using Siri this way but this really could be a lifesaver. But the thing is that in critical situation I don’t think that you will come up in the mind for asking help to Siri but who knows

  2. SmileChurch

    Whoa…hold your horses, folks. I have an iPhone 4S w/ Siri, and it’s useful and mildly impressive, but I don’t think it should ever be used for PRESCRIPTION TRANSCRIPTION!! It’s already horrible for pharmacies to deciper a doc’s handwriting, leading to millions of Rx emergencies and screw-ups.

  3. Robert Hidajat

    Nice post John!

    For the Android users, I built an app, Flarecaster, that will detect if you call 911 and automatically alert your neighbors, families and friends via text/SMS simultaneously as your 911 call is being connected. The message(flare) can include the nature of your emergency, your GPS location, a snapshot (automatically uploaded to TwitPic) and more. Flarecaster can also send a tweet and detect if your location changes and cast another flare every few minutes.

    The cardiac event scenario you outlined is one of the main reasons why I developed it.

    Unfortunately, since 911 does not support SMS in most places, Flarecaster can’t cast a flare to 911. I’m looking forward to be able to do this when NG 911 is rolled out.

    In the mean time, make friends with a local paramedic, fireman and police officer and add them into the list of people to be alerted by Flarecaster when you call 911 :)

  4. There is no doubt that innovations in technology will continue to support health and medical needs. While Siri does offer some interesting possibilities for the future, there are some very reliable technologies available today like Smart911, which can identify the location of a cell phone caller during a 9-1-1 call. Citizens can easily create a safety profile on and include critical medical information (allergies, disabilities), photos, family and pet information, which all becomes immediately available to a call taker & first-responder when a 9-1-1 call is placed.

  5. The author seems to have had a wow moment after Siri but perhaps doesn’t know that voice recognition and ability to understand natural language – Siri is on Nuance’s technology – has been around for a while. Siri is a good integration with phone apps propelled by Apple’s marketing

    • Actually I’m fully aware of that. Siri was in the App store. But never has Siri been this powerful or this adept at system level functions. So, yes, I believe this is way different. And I also think that when developers get access to it through APIs it’ll be a watershed moment.

    • Good question, Katrina. We could look into alternatives for that consequence. However, what happens when your phone dies now when you have an emergency? Unfortunately you’re out of luck. This scenario allows us to utilize existing (for the most part) technology together with coming improvements in the 911 system to provide far better emergency care. What we can’t do, yet at least, is outrun the physical limitations of battery technology.

      • Yeah, that’s always what it comes down to, unfortunately. I’m currently doing a research-design project that will turn into a simulated campaign of encouraging the turning off of our mobile phones for one day to get back in touch with ourselves and the world… it will be interesting to see the results!

        I interviewed certain people about emergency situations and how their cell phones failed– a couple of them mentioned their batteries but one girl told a story of how her young friend experienced a stroke and how the husband couldn’t use her cell phone to place the emergency call because she had a passcode; she obviously couldn’t communicate with him what the numbers were so it was a crazy panic. Crazy story. They worked it out and were able to place the call, but it could have ended badly if this girl wasn’t young and healthy! But it is exciting to see where technology can all lead…
        At what point though does this become destructive technology? Are we setting ourselves up to be too dependent on all of this?

  6. Brian Joy

    Some interesting concepts. Have you spoken with Apple about donating Siri licence free to other handset manufacturers who utilize other mobile OS? Without that altruistic approach from Apple you can drag and drop this straight into Garbage icon. Unfortunately Apple’s lawyers are raking in far too much cash from Patent litigation for that approach ever to be considered!

  7. Tommy Tardy

    Hell, at the moment,health care threatens to grow to consume the entire economy of not just the United States, but most of the developed world. If you want to use your go to example of Europe, they too face rising health care costs. Check our “Penny Health” to read articles on how to save money on health insurance.

  8. I would have preferred the writer to focus on the bigger picture of how this type of technology can reach the greater population, and not just jump on the Apple PR bandwagon.

    • Thanks for reading. Well, as I mention as the end of the article, I believe Siri is ushering in a new wave. It’s not about Siri per se in the end. It’s about how a revolution of how we look at emergency care will take place, yes started by Siri, but by no means controlled solely by it.

  9. nice idea, but the main problem with 911 is the connection. If there is no 3G coverage Siri won’t work
    however taking into account that 50% of emergencies happen at home – it would find its applicability somehow…

  10. Such a system if right now available in high end luxury cars…of it senses an accident, it sends a message to the cart company who to establish contact with you and if you do not reply send emergency rescue to you after detecting the place of accident using your in car GPS….

      • Thanks for reading Mark. Yes, the technology TG is referring to is essentially OnStar, which is great. But no system such as that exists for a mobile device. And I’m not sure what the cost would be if it did. They proposal I lay out is free, it’s a matter of accessing 911 in a more efficient way and tying in apps that are free.

  11. tim jones

    Since Siri is only available for the iPhone 4S, that limits its use to Apple fans, who are wealthy. Apple doesn’t share its technology with others, so Siri is useless to the 99%.

  12. Swiss Emergency Responder “REGA” has an app for that. You can open the app and it will send information about the caller, location and preset details via 3G prior to automatically initiating the call.

    Works worldwide (swiss citizens have priority though) and is free: