Durango-La Plata Emergency Center reporting 25% increase in calls with no response
Skiers and snowboarders taking to the slopes are being asked to pay closer attention to their Apple watches and other wearable devices that can send automatic calls to emergency service dispatch centers. Durango-La Plata Emergency Center is reporting a 25% increase this month in 911 misdials, or worse yet, calls that end with either the party on the other end hanging up without any communication or leaving the line open.
The culprit? Zeta Fail, the director of the emergency center, says the automatic crash detection feature on some wearable devices could be to blame.
The dispatch center does not categorize calls based on source, so the true number of calls routed there automatically by devices is unknown.
Apple released the technology with its new slate of products on Sept. 16. By default, the Series 8 and SE (second generation) models of the company’s watches, as well as the various configurations of the iPhone 14, have the crash detection feature enabled by default.
Using sensors that collect a variety of data points related to acceleration and deceleration, atmospheric pressure (to detect air bag deployment) as well as the microphone, the technology is intended to deploy if the user is in a car accident. If the product senses that a crash has occurred, it notifies the owner and begins a 20-second countdown. If the user does not stop the device, the phone or watch will automatically call 911 and notify any listed emergency contacts.
The feature has also been available on the Google Pixel phone series since 2020.
Despite the feature’s intended use, dispatch centers have found that small ski crashes have been triggering automated calls, overwhelming 911 operators with an influx of unintended calls.
“If we get a 911 hang-up or an open line or a misdial and they do not have any voice contact with us, then we’re required to follow up on that,” Fail said. “So it takes our resources and, depending on what we hear if it’s an open line, we may go ahead and dispatch responders.”
Fail said she is not advocating that skiers turn the feature off because doing so could compromise their safety. However, she is asking that anyone with a device with this feature be aware that it may be activated while skiing.
“The dispatchers on the weekends especially have been telling me that they were getting a ton of calls from people that are falling on the ski resort and that kind of thing,” she said.
Sometimes those emergency contacts who are automatically alerted as well place calls to 911 operators. Either way, the lack of direct communication with the person potentially in need of care is sucking up time and resources.
The exact impact is unknown. The layout of Purgatory Resort makes it hard to track the number of dispatches to potentially injured skiers, and the absence of information tying calls to specific devices makes parsing call data near impossible.
“It is a challenge at times because we’re used to talking to the caller and asking questions and knowing what to tell the responders that are going out there,” Fail said. “A lot of times with this new technology, we don’t have that voice contact.”
Compared with this time last year, Fail said that the number of misdials, hang-ups and open lines is down. However, monthly data is not comparable year to year given the large and unclear impact of COVID-19 on both tourism and emergency services.
The issue has not had any impact on Purgatory Ski Patrol, according to Theresa Blake Graven, a spokeswoman for the resort.