911 dispatchers inundated with distress calls from Apple watches on skiers who are very much alive

A Colorado county has seen emergency calls double this winter, threatening to desensitize dispatchers and divert limited resources from true emergencies.

(Theo Stroomer | The New York Times) Eric Betts, a dispatcher at the Summit County 911 Center, at work in Frisco, Colo., on Jan. 29, 2023. 911 dispatchers are buried under an avalanche of false, automated distress calls from skiers and other Apple device owners who are very much alive.

Frisco, Colo. • On a recent sunny Sunday morning, following a night of fluffy snowfall, tens of thousands of skiers flocked to the resorts of Summit County. Just minutes after the lift lines opened, sirens began blaring in the 911 emergency service center, where four staff members were taking calls and dispatching help.

Each jarring alert was a new incoming call, heralding a possible car crash, heart attack or other life-threatening situation. Often, the phone operators heard a chilling sound at the far end of the line: silence, perhaps from a caller too incapacitated to respond.

At 9:07 a.m., one dispatcher, Eric Betts, responded to such a call. From the map on one of the seven monitors on his desk, he could see that the distress call originated from a slope at the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Betts tried calling back. A man picked up.

“Do you have an emergency?” Betts asked. No, the man said, he was skiing — safely, happily, unharmed. Slightly annoyed, he added, “For the last three days, my watch has been dialing 911.”

Winter has brought a decent amount of snowfall to the region’s ski resorts, and with it an avalanche of false emergency calls. Virtually all of them have been placed by Apple Watches or iPhone 14s under the mistaken impression that their owners have been debilitated in collisions.

As of September, these devices have come equipped with technology meant to detect car crashes and alert 911 dispatchers. It is a more sensitive upgrade to software on Apple devices, now several years old, that can detect when a user falls and then dial for help. But the latest innovation appears to send the device into overdrive: It keeps mistaking skiers, and some other fitness enthusiasts, for car-wreck victims.

Lately, emergency call centers in some ski regions have been inundated with inadvertent, automated calls, dozens or more a week. Phone operators often must put other calls, including real emergencies, on hold to clarify whether the latest siren has been prompted by a human at risk or an overzealous device.

(Theo Stroomer | The New York Times) Skiers and snowboarders at the Breckenridge Ski Resort in Breckenridge, Colo., on Jan. 29, 2023.

“My whole day is managing crash notifications,” said Trina Dummer, interim director of Summit County’s emergency services, which received 185 such calls in the week from Jan. 13 to Jan. 22. (In winters past, the typical call volume on a busy day was roughly half that.) Dummer said that the onslaught was threatening to desensitize dispatchers and divert limited resources from true emergencies.

“Apple needs to put in their own call center if this is a feature they want,” she said.

Her call center and others have alerted Apple to the issue. In mid-January, the company sent four representatives to observe Dummer and her team for a day; she said they had plenty of examples to show off.

In a written statement, Alex Kirschner, an Apple spokesman, said, “We have been aware that in some specific scenarios these features have triggered emergency services when a user didn’t experience a severe car crash or hard fall.” The company noted that when a crash is detected, the watch buzzes and sends a loud warning alerting the user that a call is being placed to 911, and it provides 10 seconds in which to cancel the call.

Apple also said that updates to the software late last year had been intended to “optimize” the technology and reduce the number of false calls. Kirschner added, “Crash Detection and Fall Detection are designed to get users help when they need it most, and it has already contributed to saving several lives.”

Apple maintains a collection of incidents in which the two technologies have come to the rescue. In one case, an Apple Watch alerted the authorities after a driver in Indianapolis had crashed into a telephone pole and the device dialed for assistance. In another, a watch called for help after a New Jersey man fell down a steep cliff while hiking.

In Colorado, call dispatchers had trouble recalling an instance in which a watch had saved a skier in distress. (Dummer added that her team had “very rarely” received false 911 calls from other companies’ devices, such as Android phones.)

The problem extends beyond skiers. “My watch regularly thinks I’ve had an accident,” said Stacey Torman, who works for Salesforce in London and teaches spin classes there. She might be safely on the bike, exhorting her class to ramp up the energy, or waving her arms to congratulate them, when her Apple Watch senses danger.

“I want to celebrate, but my watch really doesn’t want me to celebrate,” she said. Oh great, she thinks, “now my watch thinks I’m dead.”

Recently she fell while racing to catch a bus in the rain. “I went down hard, really hard,” she said. Her watch did not call 911, however. “When I did actually fall running for the bus?” she said. “Crickets.”

(Theo Stroomer | The New York Times) Jeff Fitch, a rookie dispatch supervisor, takes a call at the Summit County 911 Center in Frisco, Colo., on Jan. 29, 2023.

Jon Baron, who works in real estate in Golden, Colorado, has an Apple Watch that has twice dialed the authorities. Once, he was at an amusement park playing the strongman game, in which the goal is to hit a lever with a hammer firmly enough to ring a bell. Baron swung, the bell rang, his wife and children seemed duly impressed — until “my watch started making this noise like an air-raid siren,” he said.

“I was trying to show I was physically able, which I thought I’d demonstrated fairly aptly, but my watch thought different,” he added.

Another time, Baron was in the Tampa airport when the intercom summoned him to a white paging telephone. An emergency services operator at the other end told him his device had dialed 911 for help. Was he OK? “I’m doing all right,” he said he had told the operator. “But I have a plane to catch.”

Apple introduced fall detection technology in 2018 after developing an algorithm based on the trajectory of a wrist wearing a watch and acceleration at time of impact. Its crash-detection technology, introduced in September, was tested in crash tests and labs on iPhones and Apple Watches.

But something about the way skiers accelerate and stop, or jostle, seems to set the technology on edge. And skiers, in helmets and layers of clothing, often do not to detect the warning, so they may not cancel the call or respond to the 911 dispatcher.

“A lot of people don’t feel it or hear it,” said Brett Loeb, emergency services communications director in Pitkin County, Colorado, home to Aspen Mountain. Or, he proposed, even when they feel the vibration, “they think, ‘I don’t want to answer my phone right now — I’m having a great time; my phone is killing my buzz.’”

He noted that Aspen Mountain had recently posted signs at lift lines and ticket offices alerting Apple Watch and iPhone 14 users to the problem and encouraging them to upgrade to the latest software version or disable the service, to “prevent unnecessary trips to the slopes” by 911-dispatched ambulances.

At the Summit County call center on Sunday morning, Dummer was training a rookie dispatch supervisor, Jeff Fitch, to field 911 calls, while Betts and another dispatcher, David Benson, handled the overflow and communicated with ambulances and the police.

The siren went off, and Fitch picked up the call. “911,” he said into his headset. “Hello?” A monitor displayed the caller’s location on the ski slope; another displayed the caller’s number. Fitch leaned forward into the silence: “Hello?”

The watch calls kept coming; the siren kept blaring. Amid it all, Dummer and Fitch fielded a genuine distress call from a 78-year-old driver who was having trouble breathing. Traffic was bad, hindering ambulance access, and the dispatch team was calling two nearby counties for help.

Just before noon, Mark Watson, a sergeant with the sheriff’s office, walked into the dispatch room looking glum. “This is not a good day,” he said.

Ordinarily, he had other duties, including patrolling the backcountry on snowmobile, but the ghost calls had kept him at his desk. Whenever the 911 operators were unable to reach the owner of the watch or phone, the case was referred to Watson, who would try calling and sending a text; if he didn’t hear back, he forwarded the issue to the ski patrol.

So far that day, Watson had fielded seven referrals from 911, four of which he forwarded to the ski patrol. He turned to Dummer: How many crash-detection calls had come in overall? Eleven, she said, out of 30 calls total.

“I wanted to check the numbers,” he said. “I was writing a letter to Apple.” He described his basic message to the company: “I’m struggling to get my daily job done. I don’t have all day to do Apple products.”

In Grand County, home to a busy mountain called Winter Park, Sheriff Brett Schroetlin decided in late December to devote less attention to the crash-detection calls. Now if a 911 operator receives one from the slopes and no one is on the other end of the line, they know to ignore the call; no more referrals or follow-ups. None of the ghost calls so far have been real emergencies, Schroetlin reasoned, and he couldn’t afford to waste limited resources. Besides, he said, there was a better technology: human beings.

“It’s rare that someone falls on the mountain and there’s not a passerby,” he said. “We’re hoping to get an actual 911 call from the person or someone on the scene.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.