Hello, what’s your emergency? iPhone 14 wrongly dialing 911 on Alberta ski hills

Skiers and snowmobilers hitting the bumpy trails in North America have been triggering emergency calls to local responders, thanks to a safety feature programmed into the newest iPhones and Apple watches.

The iPhone 14 and Apple Watch 8, both launched last September, include crash detection software designed primarily for vehicle incidents. If the program determines its users have been in a car crash, an alert screen will pop up and users have 20 seconds to respond before the device calls 911 with an approximate location. 

If there is no cellular or internet service, it will send for help via satellite, according to the Apple website

Since being launched, the devices have helped emergency services respond to real incidents. In one, an Indianapolis man’s Apple watch called for help after he lost control of his car, smashed into a telephone pole and became unconscious. Closer to home, Parks Canada officials in Jasper National Park cite an incident where a driver crashed into a tree and their phone called 911. 

Someone holds up an IPhone 14
The Apple iPhone 14 included new crash detection software when it was released in 2022. (Nic Coury/Bloomberg)

But the new software proved to be a bit too sensitive.

U.S. news reports from last fall cited instances where the iPhone 14 feature was being set off by roller coasters.

Officials in Greene County, a south-central region of New York State that includes the Catskill Mountains, say emergency calls were up by 16 per cent in December 2022 compared to 2021. It’s likely the jump was due to the new phone, James DiPerna, the local 911 communications director, told CBC News.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office in Summit County, Colo — home to several large ski resorts including Copper Mountain, Keystone and Breckenridge — says emergency dispatchers are still overwhelmed with false calls.

Mark Watson, a special operations officer, said as many as 20 false emergency calls come in each day due to the new iPhone. “It’s very frustrating,” he said. 

And time consuming, he added, noting that each call needs to be cleared by dispatch and may be investigated by ski patrol. 

Problem in Canada, too

As of Jan. 24, Parks Canada officials in Jasper had received approximately 30 false 911 calls due to the new iPhone. The vast majority of those came from Marmot Basin. 

Banff National Park reports one incident, from the Lake Louise ski resort.

The new software has also accidentally launched several search-and-rescue events in B.C. 

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In a December incident, a snowmobiler put their phone in the sled’s glove box and headed out, unaware that the bouncing and bumping phone was calling 911. 

“I jokingly said they [Apple] probably should have tested it with B.C. outdoor enthusiasts because they are pretty hard core,” said Dwight Yochim, senior manager with the B.C. Search and Rescue Association. 

Minica Ahlstrom, president of the Search and Rescue Association of Alberta, said the agency has already been stretched by an increase in rescues calls attributed to more people heading outdoors since the start of the pandemic.

“Something like added calls from the iPhone 14 are just going to add more stress to that already stressed system,” she said. 

Update corrects issue

Apple upgraded the software with December’s iOS 16.2 update, which heeded some feedback from search-and-rescue organizations. 

“It’s suppose to limit those false detections,” said Yochim. “I believe they have added into the system that the location would need to be near a road so that your not falsely activating it up a mountain.” 

Screenshot of the crash detection on/off switch on iPhone 14.
The phone’s crash detection software can be disabled by the user. (Ashley Hillman)

The number of false activations has gone down as iPhone 14 users update their phones, he said.

Apple did not respond to a CBC News request for comment.

Disable it or not

Phone settings allow the crash detection software to be disabled but some 911 dispatchers prefer if you didn’t. 

“If you had fallen down or had a ski accident where you couldn’t access your phone and you couldn’t dial 911 on your own, I can start the ski patrol towards you,” said Greene County’s James DiPerna. 

“I can talk to you on the phone and let you know help is coming.” 

Parks Canada, on the other hand, told CBC in an email that it would advise users to turn off the feature if they feel safe to do so. 

That said, the agency said the software could be helpful on roads like Alberta’s Icefields Parkway where there is no cell service or Wi-Fi . 

If venturing into the backcountry, Parks Canada advises people to still carry a more reliable satellite communication device like a Spot or Inreach. 

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