The day after Christmas, just before 5:30 PM, there was an automated voice call to the Stearns County Emergency Communications Center.
The call conveyed the latitude and longitude coordinates of the caller with an “estimated search radius of 5 meters”. In the background, I heard a loud squeal, like a snowmobile. The dispatcher said “hi” but no one answered.
I got a call back from the coordinator, but it went to voicemail. So the sheriff’s office replied. Coordinates led the deputies to a snowmobile trail. However, he saw no signs of a crash or even a snowmobile.
Because there was no crash after all. The call was accidentally triggered by crash detection software installed on iPhone 14s and later Apple Watches.
The call took about 30 minutes of the deputy secretary’s time. It’s not a very time consuming task, said John Lentz, patrol captain for the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office. But he said he was still concerned because patrol staff would respond quickly in the event of a potentially serious accident.
“You may turn on the lights and not respond to the code that way, but you’ll be driving a little faster just in case it’s an accident. We don’t want our officers to get hurt either.” .”
MPR News is not just a listener-supported source of information, it is a listener-supported resource. We take you beyond the news headlines to the world we share in Minnesota. Become a supporter today to keep MPR news alive all year long.
Lenz said Stearns County has received seven false crash calls in the past few weeks. He was the 4th who took part in the snowmobiling. Three came from downhill skiers.
After calling back several times, Lentz said a dispatcher was finally able to reach one of those skiers.
“It was about four hours later that I was able to reach him by phone, and by then the person said, ‘I’m not sure.’
St. Louis and Cook County emergency responders are advised to keep their phones and watches safe during activities that may involve abrupt stops, sharp turns, jumps, or navigating rough terrain, such as snowmobiling or skiing. They report making similar calls when they trick the sensors into thinking there was an accident. serious crash.
So far, it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in Minnesota as it is elsewhere. Emergency dispatchers in busy Colorado ski towns are reported to receive dozens of fake emergency calls every day. I even got a call from Snowmobile in Canada. The technology has even caused false alarms from roller coaster riders.
Brandon Siljold, the St. Louis County 911 superintendent who oversees the St. Louis County Emergency Management Department, recently received a fake phone call from someone wearing an Apple Watch while shoveling snow. He said there is even.
“So we don’t know if it was the movement of throwing snow that triggered the 911 call, or what happened, that caused the crash or fall event,” he said.
St. Louis County has received only a handful of these calls so far. But he said Silgjord said there were concerns that this number would take valuable resources away from real-world emergencies.
“In the event of a snowmobile crash, we always dispatch rescuers, we dispatch law enforcement. We will dispatch people.Therefore, we have a considerable amount of corresponding resources.”
“And because of the tendency to injury [from snowmobile or] When an off-road vehicle crashes, the medical response can often be quite heavy. ”
Apple started adding crash technology software to its products last September.
Phones and watches are equipped with accelerometers, gyroscopes, GPS, and other devices that detect changes in speed, acceleration, and position. A microphone picks up the sound of the crash.
Apple said the technology is highly accurate and has been rigorously tested, but added that it is seeking feedback from first responders on how its collision detection software is performing. .
The company also says that once a collision is detected, there will be a 10-second delay followed by a 10-second countdown during which the phone or watch will display an alert and sound an alarm, allowing users to cancel the emergency call. It also points out that there is no need.
But that alarm can be hard to hear in the roar of snowmobiles or when your phone is buried under your winter clothing.
It’s not just Apple products. Both St. Louis and Stearns counties received fake calls through the “Life 360” app that parents often use to track their children. The app also has crash detection similar to Apple’s phones and watches.
Silgjord of St. Louis County said the app recently received a call reporting a crash on a snowmobile trail. A representative responded, but no one was found.
In the end, we were able to track down who registered the app.
“The person wasn’t there at all and they were perfectly fine,” Silgjord said. “And there were absolutely no injuries or crashes.”
part of a bigger problem
These false crash reports are part of a larger problem law enforcement has grappled with over the past two years, with accidental emergency calls from the SOS feature built into iPhones and Android phones.
These instances typically take less time for emergency responders. This is because the caller will often answer the phone when the caller calls back and can communicate that it is not a true emergency.
Still, they are a nuisance. According to Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen, dispatch centers received about 700 fake 911 calls in 2022. This included a spike in vacation calls, some of which were falsely triggered by crash detection.
“It took a long time in our dispatch center. It’s putting a lot of stress on our office, we have to go to the office and track down some of these calls in the first place,” Eliasen said.
Cook and Stearns counties have been encouraging residents in recent weeks to check their device settings and turn off the automatic emergency call feature when participating in activities like snowmobiling or skiing, or when it’s not needed. increase.
But rather than disable them, educate yourself on how those features work, said Dana Wahlberg, head of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Communications Network Division. I recommend people to
“This is a really good opportunity to provide education to help people understand it. [they’ve] We bought a product that allowed us to use a lot of technology,” says Wahlberg.
“With that comes a responsibility to truly embrace that technology.”
Wahlberg said it’s also important not to hang up if you accidentally dial 911. Instead, you should let the dispatcher know that it’s not an emergency.
“So don’t hang up and let the coordinator know you made a mistake. No harm. No foul.” Instead, give them time to track you down or call you back. If you’re spending it, it’s a waste of resources.”
The bottom line, according to St. Louis County’s Brandon Silgjord, is that while the technology can send false alarms, it can also save lives.
The day after his first interview with MPR News, he called again to say that a dispatcher had received a notification of a critical crash on his Apple Watch, which turned out to be a crash. Also, ambulance crews were able to respond quickly.