On January 11, 2023

iPhone setting ties up 911 call centers

By Katy Savage

Ludlow police dispatch receives up to 10 automated crash notifications from skiers’ iPhones and Apple watches a day. The problem is, most of them aren’t emergencies. 

Each of the non-emergency calls takes time to process and respond to.  

“They have to call every single one of them back and basically treat it like a 911 hang up call,” Ludlow Ambulance Director Stephanie Grover said. “It’s tying up the phone system.”

Some dispatch centers are seeing a double-digit increase in call volume, due in part to an iPhone 14 setting that automatically makes a 911 call if it detects the person is in a car crash. 

The car crash detection feature launched with the new iPhones and Apple Watch models in September and 911 and emergency dispatchers across the United States have noted an influx of calls from iPhone 14 devices, even though no car crash has occurred.

In some areas, roller coasters, or any activity that jolts a phone is being misinterpreted as a car crash. The phone can be triggered when a skier falls down or when the phone is dropped. Some phones are triggered on a chairlift. 

“The speed of the chairlift correlates with the speed of a car so it tricks the phone into thinking that you’re in a car,” Grover said. “When you get off, there’s a rapid deceleration that makes the phone go off as well.”

Apple released an update in November, but the issue continues to plague law enforcement agencies, which are short-staffed and strapped for resources. 

“We had one where they said their son punched them in the jacket where the phone was and that made it go off,” Grover said. 

If the dispatch center receives a 911 hangup, the 911 emergency responder makes an attempt to call the person back and get in touch via text.

A study of Vermont 911 calls made in early 2022 found 30% of the calls received were misdials and accidental calls. 

“The time and resources spent following up on these calls has the potential to impact the handling of emergency calls for assistance,” said Barb Neal, the executive director of the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board.

Neal explained the state doesn’t track which calls are made from iPhones or wireless devices and doesn’t have a way of knowing which are from the new iPhone 14 setting.  

The Vermont Enhanced 911 Board reviewed 3,500 calls in 2022 as part of a special project that required listening to each of the calls to determine the nature of the event. 

Patrick Cavanaugh, the public information officer at the New Hampshire Dept. of Safety, Division of Emergency Services and Communications said New Hampshire 911 call centers also do not track calls made specifically from smartphones. 

“That being said, our 911 telecommunicators report seeing double-digit instances of these types of calls from just this past weekend, when New Hampshire weather conditions were favorable for skiing and other winter outdoor activities,” he said. “It’s a national trend. We’ve seen a huge increase in abandoned calls and resources going out.” 

Cavanaugh said New Hampshire treats all calls the same way.  “Our telecommunicators respond to every 911 call, treating each call that comes in as an emergency. When an abandoned 911 call is received, our telecommunicators make every effort to reach the caller through voice call and/or text message. If we do not receive a response from the caller, the call is transferred to the local dispatching agency for them to decide on call response actions.”

The issue was particularly difficult for call centers over Christmas week and now as the centers prepare for another busy ski weekend over Martin Luther King weekend, they are asking  people to deactivate the crash detection feature on their smartphones before hitting the slopes. “We strongly recommend that users of any telecommunications device understand how that device operates and that they take steps to minimize the risk of accidental calls to 911,” Neal said. “Importantly, if an accidental call is placed to 911, the caller should stay on the line and speak to the call-taker, rather than just hanging up.”

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