UK police blame Android SOS feature for influx of false emergency calls

Android’s Emergency SOS feature is so easy to activate that users in the UK are accidently calling emergency services. | Illustration: Alex Castro / The Verge

An Android feature designed to help users contact emergency services is making life difficult for first responders in the UK. The BBC reports that police forces across the nation have reported an influx of false emergencies to the 999 switchboard (The UK’s equivalent of 911) in recent weeks which have largely been attributed to the Emergency SOS feature for Android phones.

Law enforcement in Scotland, and the English counties of Wiltshire, Devon, Cornwall, and Gloucestershire have reported receiving a higher number of silent or abandoned calls since an Android update released between October 2022 and February 2023 introduced an Emergency SOS calling feature to more Android phones. The BBC reports that each errant call can take around 20 minutes to deal with as operators ensure it wasn’t made by someone who is otherwise unable to verbally communicate an emergency situation.

The SOS feature allows Android users to quickly contact emergency services by pressing their device’s power button multiple times. The action is easy to perform accidentally, however, resulting in a deluge of “butt dialed” false emergencies.

Earlier this month, the National Police Chiefs Council highlighted the issue on Twitter, noting that users can disable the Android feature to lessen the burden on emergency responders. “Calls to 999 where the operator cannot hear anyone on the line (silent calls) are never just ignored. Call handlers will then need to spend valuable time trying to call you back to check whether you need help,” the account tweeted on June 17th. “If you do accidentally dial 999, please don’t hang up. If possible, please stay on the line and let the operator know it was an accident and that you don’t need any assistance.”

Introduced with the release of Android 12 on Google Pixel phones back in 2021, Emergency SOS is designed to make it easier to call for help in situations where users may otherwise be unable to physically dial. While the feature has technically been available for almost two years on Pixel phones — with similar issues reported by Pixel users shortly after its release — Emergency SOS has taken a while to arrive on other Android phone brands because device manufacturers are responsible for rolling out the feature (with customizations) to their own devices. Essentially, Emergency SOS has only recently rolled out to enough Android phones to draw significant attention to the issue.

Google has responded to the situation, informing the BBC that phone manufacturers are responsible for offering the Emergency SOS feature and managing how it will work on their respective devices.

“To help these manufacturers prevent unintentional emergency calls on their devices, Android is providing them with additional guidance and resources,” said a Google spokesperson to the BBC. “We anticipate device manufacturers will roll out updates to their users that address this issue shortly. Users that continue to experience this issue should switch Emergency SOS off for the next couple of days.”

To disable it head into the device settings and search for “Emergency SOS.” From there you switch the toggle to “off.”

The issue with accidental calls to emergency services isn’t unique to the UK or to Android. Law enforcement across Europe and Canada have similarly reported a significant increase in accidental emergency calls related to Android’s Emergency SOS feature. Apple has also experienced issues with its own emergency calling, such as the Crash Detection feature on the iPhone 14 being activated when users ride on rollercoasters.

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