Colorado ski town emergency dispatch centers receiving dozens of automated 911 calls from skiers

Over a weekend in mid-December, dispatchers at the Summit County 911 Center sent out 71 push accident notifications from skiers’ iPhones and Apple Watches at the four ski areas in the county. None of them implied an emergency.

But each of them took time to resolve. If the skier did not respond to a call back, a special operations officer would contact ski patrolmen to verify the location of the robocall.

“We are not in the practice of ignoring calls,” said Trina Dummer, acting director of the Summit County 911 Center. “These calls involve a large number of resources, from dispatchers to agents to ski patrol. And I don’t think we’ve ever had a real emergency event.”

The “crash detection” and “fall detection” features on the Apple iPhone 14 and watches automatically call 911 when the devices detect a sudden stop which, in concept, means the user has been involved in a car accident. The technology has been heralded in several cases as saving lives, but it’s not working well for skiers who can stop suddenly and often fall without emergency help.

All the robocalls to 911 from skiers going to ski town emergency call centers this month, with a robot voice sharing the latitude and longitude coordinates of a potentially injured party, refer to falls on snow, not car accidents.

Dispatch operators in Grand, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt and Summit counties, home to 12 busy ski slopes, are receiving record numbers of robocalls from skiers’ phones and Apple Watches, straining the resources of emergency response. When a 911 call comes in, each call is handled in the order it arrives, so an automated call from a skier’s phone could delay response to a 911 call with a true emergency.

“We are absolutely diverting essential resources away from the people who need them into a feature on a phone.”

Trina Dummer, Interim Director of the Summit County 911 Center

“We are absolutely diverting essential resources away from the people who need them to a feature on a phone,” Dummer said.

Apple released an automatic fall detection feature in its watches a couple of years ago. That started a slow trickle of calls from skiers to dispatch centers in the resort area. The new iPhone 14 sends 911 calls whenever the phone detects a jolt that it determines is similar to a serious car accident. That has skyrocketed the number of 911 calls from skiers’ phones.

The Pitkin County 911 Center receives about 15 to 20 of these automated calls a day from the four ski areas in the county. Dispatchers try to return all calls, but often a call to a skier with his phone deep in his pocket goes unanswered, said Brett Loeb, director of the Pitkin County 911 Center.

Loeb typically has one or two carriers that take 911 calls, and existing emergency calls can be put on hold to receive incoming calls from iPhones. While his team has helped downed hikers and residents whose watches have notified emergency services when they’ve fallen and need help, so far there haven’t been any real emergencies from robocalls coming from the ski slopes. .

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Loeb was able to share his concerns about the feature with Apple this fall when the company tested a new system that allows users to call 911 using a satellite connection when they are out of range of their mobile network.

That satellite SOS technology will be a huge benefit to mountain users, Loeb said.

“We had a conversation with Apple about troubleshooting this fall and they told us they were aware of the issue and were working on a fix that they hoped to have in Q1 2023,” Loeb said.

Vail Police Department emergency dispatchers receive about 20 robocalls from iPhones a day. Dispatch operators try to call the phone back to make sure there isn’t an emergency. Most of the time it is a skier on the hill and there is no need for assistance. But earlier this week, two users’ iPhones simultaneously called Vail’s 911 dispatch and both were involved in a car accident.

So the technology can come in handy, said Marc Wentworth, director of the Vail Public Safety Communications Center.

Dispatchers in Grand County receive between 20 and 30 automated calls a day from the slopes in Winter Park and Ski Granby Ranch.

Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said the calls are “problematic and time consuming” but have not affected dispatch operations. Dispatchers at the Grand County emergency communications center can often screen calls to determine that it is not an emergency and not call back unless there is some other indication of trouble, Schroetlin said.

His dispatch supervisor contacted Apple and received a response that the company is aware of the conflict between skiers and accident detection technology and is working on a solution, Schroetlin said.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons contacted Apple earlier this year through the company’s online portal for law enforcement and raised concerns about automated calls to his dispatch center. The company told him this fall that an upgrade had been completed and would reduce the number of automated 911 calls from skiers’ iPhones and watches.

“But we haven’t seen our numbers change. We are seeing up to 20 a day and it is a huge drain on our resources,” FitzSimons said. “We’re reaching out to Apple to get them to pay more attention to this, but it looks like we’re trying to turn a battleship into a bathtub.”

Apple engineers developed “advanced sensor fusion” technology for its accident detection feature using data from accident labs, actual accidents, and lots of driving. The technology uses an accelerometer and gyroscope, GPS, barometer and microphone to detect accidents. It is designed to call for help when it senses a “severe shock” capable of causing major lacerations, broken bones, crushed limbs, and bruised organs. Once the accident detection technology is activated, an aggressive alarm sounds and a 20-second countdown begins in which users can cancel the 911 call.

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The audio recording given to 911 operators, which is replayed every five seconds, says that “the owner of this iPhone was in a serious car accident and is not responding to his phone.”

“Apple has validated the performance of the sensor and algorithm using a large number of simulated and real-world car accidents, allowing the feature to detect as many serious accidents as possible while minimizing false positives,” the statement read. an accident detection manual that Apple published this fall.

Search and rescue teams in rural areas rarely dismiss calls for help. Colorado search and rescue volunteers often venture into the interior of the country to rescue users of satellite-connected devices that triggered calls for help. Now that iPhones can send an SOS signal via satellite and newer phones can send that signal automatically without the user pressing any buttons, backcountry teams are taking a close look at Apple’s tweaks.

“Without a solution, this is likely to spread to backcountry snowmobilers and perhaps other backcountry recreationists,” said Anna DeBattiste of Colorado Search and Rescue, pointing to a recent campaign by SAR teams in British Columbia urging snowmobiles to Backcountry travelers to keep abreast of new accident detection technology on their iPhones.

Older iPhones would automatically call 911 whenever the user pressed and held the side button and any of the volume buttons. That triggered the first wave of hung-up 911 calls from mobile devices in the pockets of skiers who were probably trying to adjust the volume of the speakers in their helmets. Now new crash and drop detection features, which are enabled on all new iPhones and watches, have added even more automated calls to emergency dispatch centers. Dummer hopes more users, especially skiers, will disable the accident detection feature on their phones, at least when visiting a resort. (Go to Settings > Emergency SOS and iPhone 14 users can turn off “Call after hard crash” and older iPhone users can turn off “Call on hold.”)

“People need to better understand their phones and know that there is a measure of liability for owners of phones with these features,” he said.

This story was provided by Jason Blevins of The Colorado Sun through our partnership at the Associated Press Story Share and COLab.

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