iPhones Automatically Dial 911 in Colorado Ski Towns: Last weekend, skiers using iPhones and Apple watches to report crashes alerted dispatchers at the Summit County 911 Center to 71 such incidents across the county’s four ski slopes. There was never a true emergency in any of them.
Nonetheless, it was laborious to make sense of each of them. A deputy from special operations would get in touch with ski patrollers to see if they could find the skier if they didn’t respond to a return call.
Trina Dummer, the interim director of the Summit County 911 Center, emphasized, “We are not in the business of dismissing calls.” Everybody from dispatchers to sheriff’s deputies to ski patrollers gets involved in these calls. Plus, I don’t recall there ever being a true emergency.
When the Apple iPhone 14 or Apple Watch senses a sudden stop, which may indicate an automobile crash, the gadgets will automatically dial 911. Although the life-saving device has been widely praised, it doesn’t seem to work very well with skiers, who can stop suddenly and often fall without triggering an emergency.
This month, emergency call centers in ski towns received an influx of automated 911 calls from skiers, all of which concerned skiers falling in the snow, rather than automobile accidents.
There are a record amount of automated calls from skiers’ Apple phones and watches being received by dispatchers in Grand, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt, and Summit counties, home to 12 very active ski resorts. 911 calls are answered in the order they are received, so an automated call from a skier’s phone could cause the operator to delay helping someone with a genuine emergency.
Because of this phone function, “we are clearly diverting important resources away from individuals who need it,” Dummer said.
A couple of years ago, Apple included a technology in its watches that could automatically detect falls. It was then that skiers’ wrists began to slowly dribble calls to resort-area dispatch stations. When the new iPhone 14 detects an impact it believes is consistent with a major car crash, it automatically dials 911. As a result, there has been an increase in skiers calling 911 from their phones.
About fifteen to twenty of these calls are received daily by the Pitkin County 911 Center from the county’s four ski slopes. Director of the dispatch center Brett Loeb noted that while they make every effort to return every call, calls to skiers who have their phones buried in their pockets are often not answered.
Typically, two operators in Loeb handle 911 calls, and ongoing emergency calls can be put on wait to answer iPhone calls. Although his crew has assisted injured hikers and locals whose watches have automatically called for aid when they are in danger, no true emergencies have resulted from the watches’ reports of danger on the ski slopes as of yet.
This fall, when Apple tested a new system that allows customers to call 911 via satellite link while they are out of range of their cell network, Loeb was able to voice his concerns about the functionality to the firm.
Loeb argues that people who use the mountains will greatly benefit from the satellite SOS system.
The company “is aware of the issue and is working on a patch they hope to have out in the first quarter of 2023,” Loeb said, adding that the two companies spoke about the crash detection this fall.
About 20 prerecorded iPhone calls a day reach Vail PD’s emergency dispatchers. First, dispatchers will attempt to call you back to make sure there is no emergency. Typically, it’s just a skier on the hill and no one needs help. However, earlier this week, two iPhones buzzed Vail’s 911 dispatch at the same time, and both users were engaged in separate car accidents.
Vail Public Safety Communications Center Director Marc Wentworth agreed that the technology can be useful.
Twenty to thirty of these calls are received daily by dispatchers in Grand County from the ski areas of Winter Park and Ski Granby Ranch.
Although Sheriff Brett Schroetlin of Grand County acknowledged that these calls are “difficult and time-consuming,” he stressed that they have not affected dispatch. According to Schroetlin, emergency dispatchers in Grand County can often screen calls to decide there is no emergency, in which case they will not call back.
Schroetlin said his supervisor at the dispatch center had contacted Apple about the problem and had been told that the company was working on a solution.
Earlier this year, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons voiced his displeasure to Apple about the increasing number of automated calls to his dispatch center via the tech giant’s dedicated website for law enforcement. He was informed in the fall that an update had been implemented that would reduce the volume of emergency calls made automatically from skiers’ smartphones and wearables.
But our population has not changed. According to FitzSimons, “we are seeing as many as 20 a day, and it’s a great drain on our resources.” It feels like we are attempting to flip a battleship in a bathtub when we communicate with Apple to urge them to pay more attention to this.
Using information gleaned from crash labs, real-world collisions, and extensive testing, Apple developers created “advanced sensor fusion” technology for collision detection. The system is able to detect collisions with the help of sensors like an accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, barometer, and microphone. When it detects an impact “serious” enough to cause major injuries including cuts, broken bones, crushed limbs, or sprained organs, it will automatically send out a distress signal. If the crash detection system is activated, a loud alert will sound and a countdown will begin that gives the user 20 seconds to rescind the 911 call.
The owner of the iPhone was involved in a serious car accident and is unable to reply to the phone, according to the recording played to 911 dispatchers and repeated every five seconds.
According to a crash detection guide Apple produced last fall, “Apple has evaluated sensor and algorithm performance using extensive real world and simulated car crashes, allowing the functionality to detect as many severe crashes as feasible while avoiding false positives.”
Search and rescue crews in the backcountry almost never ignore requests for assistance. Search and rescue teams in Colorado frequently go into remote areas after receiving distress calls from people using satellite-connected gadgets. With the advent of the iPhone’s ability to transmit an SOS signal via satellite and the newest iPhone’s ability to send that signal automatically without the user pushing a button, backcountry teams are keeping a careful eye on Apple’s updates.
According to Colorado Search and Rescue’s Anna DeBattiste, who cited a recent campaign by SAR teams in British Columbia encouraging backcountry travelers to be aware of the new crash detection technology in their iPhones, “without a fix, this is likely to extend to backcountry snowmobilers and perhaps other backcountry recreationists.”
When the side button and either volume button were held down together on older iPhones, an emergency call would be placed. At that point, skiers who were probably trying to change the volume on speakers in their helmets made the first wave of hangup 911 calls from their pockets.
Now, with the addition of fall and crash detection capabilities, all new iPhones and watches are automatically dialing emergency services. Dummer is optimistic that more people, especially skiers, will turn off their phones’ accident detection features while at a ski area. (Settings > Critical Alert System Those with an iPhone 14 can disable “Call After Severe Crash,” while those with an older iPhone can disable “Call with Hold.”
When asked about the responsibility that comes with owning a smartphone with such capabilities, she responded, “People need to better understand their phones.”