Automated 911 Calling and “Panic Button” Apps
A Guide for County Residents
There’s a good chance that the smartphone in your pocket is capable of helping you in an emergency and a good chance you don’t know that. So we’ve put this guide together to help you know what your phone can do for you and how you can use it.
If you have an Apple or Android phone that’s reasonably current (most iPhones and Android 11 or later), your phone has the ability to call 911 easily or even – in some cases – automatically. The methods for setting up your phone and calling 911 differ by phone and model, so your best source is either Apple or Google, but there are also lots of other resources you can find. Just search for “sos emergency” and either “iphone” or “android” and you’ll see lots of articles that can help.
The official Apple and Google descriptions can be found on these web pages:
The most common capability your phone can offer is the ability to call 911 easily. In the case of Android and earlier iPhones, you press the side or power button 5 times in a row. Later iPhones use a different process, but all of these are designed to make it easy to call 911. With some phones, using these functions means extra capabilities, like using satellite coverage when no cellular or WIFI coverage is available.
In many cases, you can also add emergency contacts to your phone to make it easy to call or text people when you need help. Both iPhone and Android devices will give you the ability to add emergency contacts who will get a message when you use this function.
For example, one message sent by some Android phones reads: “Emergency sharing The sender needs emergency help. The sender listed you as an emergency contact.” That text is then followed by a link to see the location of the phone on a map.
You can also display your medical information on your lock screen on some phones. This can be useful to let emergency responders see your blood type or that you have a medical condition that needs attention in an emergency. The specific capabilities and how to set this up varies by phone, so you should go to the pages listed above to get more details.
And on some phones, you can even enable your phone to record audio and video for a few seconds to let people know what the emergency is.
The most recent smartphones have a function called “crash detection” which is triggered by a sudden change in the movement of the phone, like when you’re in a fall. When enabled, these phones monitor for that sudden movement, then attempt to alert you and ask if you’re alright. If they don’t get a response from you, they will automatically call 911 and send your location to emergency services.
There are also apps you can find on both the Apple and Google app stores that provide similar functions to what we’ve described here. Searching for “panic button” or “safety” will find many of these apps. They may give you capabilities you can’t get from your specific phone or you might find them easier to use. We don’t recommend specific products, so we can’t tell you which app to choose. If you do decide to download such an app, we strongly suggest you understand how it works and set it up correctly.
While these capabilities can be very helpful both to you and emergency responders, it’s important to be aware of how they work and be ready to turn them off if they create false alerts. You may have seen the news story this winter about false alerts coming from the iPhones of skiers in Colorado. While Apple has modified its software since then, these phones were detecting “crashes” from people falling when skiing. And because the phones were buried in the pockets of thick winter parkas, the skier either didn’t hear the notification or couldn’t get to their phone before the false alarm call went out.
And even without these automatic calls, you might accidentally make a 911 call yourself.
So if you’re in a situation – like skiing – where you’re likely to have a lot of sudden movements or falls, it’s important to turn the crash detection feature off, at least while you’re in that situation. Of course, you can turn it back on when you’re back to a less turbulent situation.
And if you find that you have made an accidental call to 911, it’s important to stay on the line and let the operator know that you’re not in an emergency. Otherwise, the 911 center may have to send someone to your location to make sure you’re OK. 911 centers get false alerts all the time, and there’s no penalty for making an accidental call, as long as you let them know it’s a false alarm. For your safety and the safety of your community, it’s important not to unnecessarily use up the time and resources of emergency responders.