The day after Christmas, just before 5:30 p.m., the Stearns County Emergency Communications Center received a call with an automated voice, saying, "The owner of this iPhone was in a severe car crash and is not responding to their phone.”
The call proceeded to give the latitude and longitude coordinates of the caller “with an estimated search radius of five meters.” In the background was a loud whine of what sounded like a snowmobile. The dispatcher said “hello,” but no one responded.
The dispatcher called back, but it went to voicemail. So the sheriff’s office responded. The coordinates led a deputy to a snowmobile trail. But he didn't see any indications of a crash, or even any snowmobiles.
That's because, as it turned out, there wasn't a crash. The call had been accidentally triggered by the crash detection software installed on iPhone 14s and newer Apple watches.
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The call ate up about a half hour of the deputy's time. That's not too terribly time consuming, said Jon Lentz, patrol captain with the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. But he said it's still concerning, because patrol staff respond quickly to potentially serious incidents.
"You may not turn on your lights and respond code that way, but you are going to drive a little quicker. In case it is an accident. So, you know, we don't want anybody else out there to be hurt, but we don't want our officers to be hurt as well."
Lentz said Stearns County has received seven false crash calls in the past couple weeks. Four involved snowmobilers. Three came from downhill skiers.
After making several return calls, Lentz said dispatchers were able to eventually reach one of those skiers.
"It was about four hours later that we were able to make contact with him on the phone. And by that time, you know, the individual said, ‘Jeez, I don't know, I think I might have fallen, but I'm not really sure.’"
Emergency responders in St. Louis and Cook counties have reported fielding similar calls, when activities such as snowmobiling and skiing, which can involve sudden stops, quick turns, jumps or traveling over rough terrain, trick the phone or watch's sensors into thinking there's been a serious crash.
So far, it doesn't appear to be as widespread in Minnesota as it is elsewhere. Emergency dispatchers in busy Colorado ski towns are reportedly receiving dozens of false emergency calls every day. Calls have also originated from snowmobilers in Canada. The technology has even triggered false calls from people riding roller coasters.
Brandon Silgjord, director of St. Louis County 911 who oversees the county's emergency management division, said they even got a false call from someone wearing an Apple watch recently while shoveling snow.
"So we don't know whether it was the motion of throwing snow or what happened that triggered a crash event or a fall event, that triggered that 911 call to us,” he said.
St. Louis County has only received a handful of these calls so far. But Silgjord said the fear is that if they increase, they could take away valuable resources from real emergencies.
"When we get a snowmobile crash, we always send our rescue squad, we send law enforcement. And depending upon the area, different EMS personnel, ambulance, first responders and those people. So it's a decent amount of resources that are going to respond."
"And because of the propensity of injuries [from snowmobile or] off-road vehicle crashes, a lot of times the medical response can be pretty heavy."
Apple began adding crash technology software to its products last September.
The phones and watches are equipped with an accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS and other instruments to detect changes in speed, acceleration and location. A microphone picks up the sound of any crash.
Apple said the technology is extremely accurate and rigorously tested, but added it's soliciting feedback from first responders on how the crash detection software is working.
The company also points out that when a crash is detected, there's a 10-second delay followed by a 10-second countdown during which the phone or watch displays an alert and sounds an alarm so the user can cancel the emergency call if it isn't needed.
But that alarm can be tough to hear through the roar of a snowmobile, or if the phone is buried under layers of winter clothing.
And it’s not just Apple products. Both St. Louis and Stearns counties have also received false calls through the "Life 360" app, often used by parents to track their kids. The app also has a crash detection feature, similar to that on Apple phones and watches.
St. Louis County’s Silgjord said a call recently came through on the app reporting a crash on a snowmobile trail. Deputies responded, but didn't find anyone.
Eventually, they were able to track down the person who had registered the app.
“The person wasn't there at all, and they were completely fine,” said Silgjord. “And there was no injuries or crashes whatsoever."
Part of a larger problem
These false crash reports are part of a larger problem that law enforcement agencies have contended with over the past couple years, of people making accidental emergency 911 calls from the built-in SOS functions on iPhones and Android mobile phones.
These instances are typically less time-consuming for emergency responders, because the callers often answer their phones when dispatchers call back, and can tell them there’s not a true emergency.
Still, they’re a nuisance. Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen said their dispatch center received about 700 false 911 calls in 2022, including a spike in calls over the holidays, some of which were accidentally triggered by crash detection.
“It was taking up a lot of time in our dispatch center, and if they can’t verify that it’s false, then they have to send deputies out, and it’s a lot of stress on our office, being that we’re a small office in the first place, to go and track some of these calls down,” Eliasen said.
Opportunity for education
Both Cook and Stearns County have encouraged residents in the past couple weeks to check the settings on their devices, and turn off the automatic emergency call features when taking part in activities such as snowmobiling or skiing, or when it isn’t needed.
But Dana Wahlberg, director of the emergency communication networks division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said she instead encourages people to educate themselves on how those functions work, rather than disable them.
"This is a really good opportunity to provide education to people to help them understand that [they’ve] purchased a product that has a lot of technology available with it,” Wahlberg said.
“And with that comes a responsibility to really embrace that technology."
Wahlberg said it’s also important for people to know that if they do accidentally make a 911 call, they should not hang up. Instead, they should let the dispatcher know there isn’t an emergency.
“So stay on the line and just let the dispatcher know that you made an error. There's no harm, no foul in that. “Instead, if they're spending time trying to track you down or call you back, that is a drain on resources.”
The bottom line, said Brandon Silgjord with St. Louis County, is that while this technology does sometimes send out false alarms, it can also save lives.
The day after his initial interview with MPR News, he called back to say that dispatchers had just gotten an Apple watch notification of a severe crash, that turned out to actually be a crash. And emergency crews were able to quickly respond.