OnStar Has You Covered

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

ACE Achievers

You name it, OnStar has it covered.

Just because the EMDs at OnStar answer emergency calls made from inside a car doesn’t mean they haven’t been there and done that. Choking. Allergic reaction. Cardiac arrest. Stroke. Baby delivery. Breathing difficulties.

Julio Donagustin, OnStar

And, of course, managing vehicle crashes, sinking vehicles, vehicles in floodwaters, and single and multiple injuries resulting from the accidents.

“A member can call for any protocol and receive help,” said Ruby Hilton, Emergency Quality Assurance Lead, General Motors – OnStar, Charlotte, North Carolina (USA). “We gather the information, coordinate response, and give PAIs, when necessary.”

As part of their services, OnStar delivers in-vehicle driver’s assistance. OnStar-certified advisors are trained to assist members in ways not altogether uncommon to PSAPs.

They also go the extra mile, so to speak.

They direct tow trucks to the scene of stalled vehicles, provide turn-by-turn traveling directions, offer remote door unlocking assistance, give help during natural disasters without cellphone connection, and all in addition to handling medical emergencies when a driver or passenger hits the red emergency button inside the member’s vehicle. They offer 24/7 connectivity to a dedicated TTY advisor.

“It’s all here,” said Charlene Poranganel, Assistant Manager for Global Emergency Services Outreach at GM Canada. “We go the extra mile to build relationships throughout the community and EMS and educate the public on what we do.”

Run parallel to a PSAP

The EMDs are certified through the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED). The 55 EMDs at each of OnStar’s two locations—North Carolina and Oshawa, Ontario, Canada—are scheduled to eight-hour rotating shifts in the 24-hour operations. Extensive training is part of the package as well as perfecting the calm and controlled attitude of the professional EMD. OnStar is a long-standing medical ACE with the same credentialing required of any other ACE.

Paul Stiegler, M.D., has been the OnStar medical director for 11 years. His over 35 years in direct hands-on emergency medicine gives him the ideal background for assisting in all things medical from the nonvisual environment perspective. He has navigated OnStar centers through both day-to-day medical emergencies and during disasters. His monthly training routine includes hitting the OnStar button from a parked location near his home in Madison, Wisconsin (USA), and play-acting emergency medical situations.

“They run the script with me, and I critique them,” he said.1

His biggest piece of advice to drivers: If something goes wrong medically while driving, pull over and call for help. “Don’t overthink things and think you’re fine driving to the hospital,” he said.2

Difference is in the delivery

OnStar is like any other PSAP with one difference, said Hilton.

OnStar doesn’t dispatch calls. The EMDs coordinate dispatch, contacting the EMS agency closest to the area where the call originated. This gives EMDs the added complexity of interacting with some 6,000 emergency communication centers across the United States and Canada.

So, don’t let the absence of dispatch cloud your perspective of OnStar services.

“We are not just a call center,” said Poranganel. “The nature of the calls we take put us at the same level of importance of any PSAP.”

OnStar’s broad reach depends on designing and monitoring a system that continually meets the needs of each individual patient while preserving the capacity of the system as a whole to surge when needed. The system depends on Protocol, technology, features not commonly found in a traditional PSAP, and the skills of a medical director experienced in emergency medicine.

Connecting to their members

OnStar’s Injury Severity Prediction, introduced in 2010, helps predict the severity of crash victims’ injuries and communicates the information to first responders for use in determining pre-hospital treatment. The feature’s algorithm analyzes such factors as force and direction of impact. OnStar Advisors relay the severity rating to 911 centers, which may choose to adjust the level and priority of response dispatched to a crash scene.

OnStar’s specialty drive teams are scheduled during peak times—early morning rush hour, evening rush hour, and mid-day (for lunch)—and adhering to time zones across North America.

At the start of the pandemic, EMDs worked remotely in home offices from early March to June 2020 when, at that point, the OnStar emergency team convinced local authorities to qualify advisors as essential service workers. At the centers, everyone wears a mask and sits at the six-foot socially distanced screened consoles.

OnStar’s integration of the Academy’s Protocol and its implementation was not automatic. Slight modifications, approved by the Academy’s Council of Medical Standards, were necessary to better accommodate the caller’s environment. For example, an instruction to pull over the vehicle in a critical situation is unique to OnStar. In case the driver or passenger should question an EMD’s qualifications, they are told upfront about the EMD’s certification and emergency qualifications.

Some things never change

The one overarching appeal of emergency communications is consistent no matter an EMD’s staging point. Hilton started at OnStar 10 years ago, moving to quality assurance after three years as an advisor. She enjoys the variability—not knowing what the next call will bring and the situational awareness it takes to understand what is happening to the caller.

But most of all?

“The real reward is making a difference in someone’s life,” she said.

Poranganel, who has been with OnStar for 13 years, shares the same passion.

“It’s the people,” she said. “In an emergency, an OnStar Advisor is always ready to help.”

Last year, OnStar emergency advisers handled about 150,000 calls in the U.S. and Canada and responded to more than 6,000 vehicle crashes every month. OnStar has about five million subscribers.


1 LaReau J. “In OnStar Emergency Every Second Matters.” USA Today. 2018; 10 July. https://www.pressreader.com/usa/usa-today-international-edition/20180710/281603831227432 (accessed May 11, 2021).

2 “Be prepared and pack more than just a basic first-aid kit for roadside emergencies.” WTHR13. NBC News. 2018; June 4. https://www.wthr.com/article/news/nation-world/be-prepared-and-pack-more-than-just-a-basic-first-aid-kit-for-roadside-emergencies/531-858e5b34-ca9f-4af3-9b3b-e8feae2bc29e (accessed May 11, 2021).