Skiers and riders might be calling 911 without even knowing

Isaiah Kelbey and Dylan Hedrick, front, ride the Barrows Lift at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Local dispatchers have been fielding an alarmingly high number of automatic 911 calls after a skier's or snowboarder's smartphone detects a crash, even though no emergency exists.
Eli Pace/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Routt County officials are asking residents and visitors to be wary of automated emergency features on their smartphones and wearable electronic devices.

While these features are designed to save lives, they have caused many unnecessary 911 calls. This has the potential to cause delays for actual emergencies.

When a device is triggered, it sounds an alarm and displays an alert. Many smartphones or wearable devices are designed to create the alert under certain conditions that can indicate a person is in danger and in a situation where they cannot dial 911.

If someone does not respond to this alert within a specified time, generally 20-60 seconds, the device makes the 911 call.

Activities that involve quick changes in speed, including skiing, tubing or even riding a chair lift, can trigger a device. On a busy snow day, Routt County Emergency Communications can receive up to 40 of these calls. Authorities often find that many people do not even know they had placed the call.

“We have been getting these calls for a while. In the past, they mostly came from Apple Watches, several versions of them,” said Jim Cullen, communication manager for Routt County Emergency Communications. “If you fall and your watch indicates that you fall, it will call 911. You only have so many seconds to get your ski gear off (and turn off the alert) before the call is placed. We were probably getting a good 12-15 calls a day last year.”

Yet, late 2022 to early 2023 saw a sharp rise in these notifications. The timeline matched perfectly with the release of the iPhone 14.

“This problem has come more to light with the new iPhone 14,” Cullen said. “It has a sensitive crash notification, and that is where we are seeing a lot of calls come from.”

Isaiah Kelbey and Dylan Hedrick, front, enjoy the fresh snow at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
Eli Pace/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Cullen said he does not see the issue going away. At the end of the day, these automatic calls have saved lives for those who find themselves in dangerous situations and unable to call for help.

For that reason, technology companies will likely not make changes to emergency features.

In a recent news release, Routt County Emergency Communications asked residents and visitors to “take a moment to see if your device has an automated emergency feature, and whether or not the feature is activated. If you use an iPhone or Apple Watch, consider updating your device if you plan to use the crash detection system. The most recent iOS update includes an ‘optimization,’ designed to avoid false activations of the crash detection system.”

If more people know to get to their devices quickly following these incidents, it will lessen the number of nonemergency calls for emergency responders.

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