911, Smartphones and False Alerts


Although Spring is here, we’re still interested in some recent articles we saw about skiing, Apple devices and 911.  

Apple has a feature that automatically calls 911 when some devices detect that a user is in trouble, for example, in a fall or a crash. The device will attempt to alert the user, ask if they are OK, and then call emergency services (aka 911) if the user doesn’t respond. 

While this feature seems potentially useful, it was causing havoc in some ski areas this winter. Apple 14 phones were calling the 911 centers in places like Summit County, Grand County and Vail, CO from the ski slopes in those areas. 

When people ski, they fall, even if the falls aren’t bad. And ski slopes have professional ski patrols on the scene. So even though there was no need for 911 to respond, the calls were coming in at a rate of 20 or more per day and taking up valuable resources. 

While this problem will undoubtedly get fixed, or at least greatly minimized, this news got us thinking about automated devices generally and their connection to 911 and emergency responders. 

There are tens – maybe hundreds – of millions of devices that are, or could be, programmed to automatically call 911 or other emergency responders. These include smartphones, watches, smart speakers, security monitoring systems, fire detection, automobiles, and wearable health monitors. The GPS device on my bike has a crash detection feature that can notify my wife in the case of a bad fall. And there are emerging categories of “smart” clothing that can monitor your heart rate and other vital signs, as well as smart glasses, rings, and more. 

At an institutional level, there are now devices meant to automatically detect the sound of gun fire, explosive vapors, flooding and other hazards. This is in addition to traditional fire and burglary alarms. 

And beyond completely automated systems, there are an increasing number of devices that make it easy to report a hazard, including so-called “panic button” apps on smartphones, other wearable panic buttons, smart speakers, etc. Most Android and iOS phones come with a built-in SOS feature to call 911 and send messages to emergency contacts, in addition to any number of specialized apps available for the purpose.

While we think the increased availability of monitoring and emergency calling systems has great potential, it also comes with a lot of issues that must be dealt with, including: 

– False alarms. This is already a problem across the US. An Arizona State University paper said 20 years ago that “phantom” wireless calls to 911 were between 25-70% of all 911 calls in some jurisdictions and a more recent estimate we found claimed that 90% of all calls to 911 were false alarms. 

– Privacy. For these devices to be effective – at least the mobile ones – they need to track the location of the user. Which raises all kinds of new privacy and security concerns, since calling emergency services means letting the government know where you are.

– Hacking. Because there are many different companies that are offering emergency calling capabilities, there are a variety of security standards that are, or aren’t being used. That could open the door to potential hackers to figure out a way to send a crippling number of calls to emergency responders. 

It may be that none of these problems are insurmountable. But the technology is evolving rapidly, so there are bound to be mistakes and possibly great disruptions along the way to figuring it all out. 

In the meantime, we think the best posture is to be aware, adopt those technologies that seem promising, and offer useful guidance to your residents, who are going to adopt some, many or all of these technologies and might very well appreciate your helpful advice. With that in mind, we’ve drafted a guide that you can freely take and adapt to your own uses with your residents.


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