3 Wyoming County Responder Groups Launch Massive Search Effort After False Alarm From Snowmobiler’s Phone

After a minor wreck set off a snowmobilers iPhone emergency alert, search and rescue squads in two counties, along with a chopper crew from a third county, were scrambled for what turned out to be a fruitless three-hour search. 

Mark Heinz

December 29, 20225 min read

Sled5 1
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

After a spill set off a snowmobiler’s iPhone emergency alert, search and rescue squads in two counties, along with a chopper crew from a third county, were scrambled for what turned out to be a fruitless three-hour search. 

The snowmobiler, unaware that his phone had sent out an automatic emergency call, had simply recovered from his wreck, got back on to his sled and continued on his way.

“There’s a Catch-22 there; you can’t ignore an emergency signal,” Maryanne Christensen, the communications director for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, told Cowboy State Daily. 

“Our motto is, ‘When in doubt, send them (rescue teams) out,’” she added. 

The incident highlights how false alerts from mobile devices can tie up emergency responders.

‘Don’t Hear It Go Off’

Newer iPhones, Apple watches and other devices come with a feature that automatically sends out a distress signal if the device senses a sudden stop or possible crash or fall. 

There’s usually an emergency tone that goes off before the signal is sent, so the device’s owner has a chance to stop the process if he or she isn’t really hurt, Christensen said.

However, people sometimes “don’t hear it go off” because of background noise, she said. 

Lawnmower And Snowmobile

That was the case in Lincoln County earlier this year when a man was cutting his grass on a riding lawnmower, she said. 

He hit a bump that was sharp enough to set off his phone’s emergency alert, but the mower’s engine kept him from hearing the warning tone before his phone automatically called 911. 

It happened again with the snowmobiler, Christensen said. He was on a remote trail up the Sheep Creek drainage when he took a spill at about 1 p.m. on Dec. 17. 

That set his iPhone’s alert off. 

But he didn’t realize that had happened because the noise of his snowmobile’s engine covered the phone’s alert tone, Christensen said. So, he was shortly back up and on his way toward the Sublette County line, unaware that his phone had just set in motion a massive rescue effort. 

All Hands On Deck

In short order, 17 members of the Star Valley division of Lincoln County Search and Rescue were on their way, Christensen said. The Tip Top Search and Rescue team out of Sublette County also started to scramble. 

And before long, there was a chopper in the air as well, she said. 

“We tried to get Life Flight to put an aircraft up, but they didn’t have a bird available right then,” she said. “So, we called the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, and they deployed a chopper, along with four of their people.”

The ground squad from Lincoln County and air crew from Teton County scoured the area, finding nothing, she said. 

Meanwhile, the snowmobiler had made it into Sublette County, where he connected with members of Tip Top Search and Rescue. They started trying to reach the rescuers on the Lincoln County side to let them know what had happened. 

“Three hours after we had started … that’s when we finally made contact with the commander of Tip Top, and he let us know that the snowmobiler had self-extracted,” Christiansen said. 

Rescuers Take It In Stride

The snowmobiler’s false alarm is the only major incident that Lincoln County has had with alert systems so far, Christensen said. She’s concerned there could be more, particularly when summer rolls around. 

“We get a lot of backcountry motorcycle and ATV trail riders up here during the summer,” she said. 

Still, search and rescue crews take things in stride, she added. 

“All of these people are volunteers, highly dedicated to what they do,” she said. “They all know that every time they get called out, it might be nothing, but it could be something.”

Alert Features Not Without Value

The device alerts aren’t without value, Christensen said, particularly for senior citizens. 

“I’ve got an elderly mother, so I got her an Apple wristwatch that has a fall alert in case something happens to her,” she said. 

And such a device performed exactly as intended when former Wyoming Republican U.S. Senator Mike Enzi suffered a serious fall in July 2021. 

An Apple watch fall alert quicky led first responders Enzi when he suffered serious injuries in a bicycle wreck near his Gillette home. Enzi, 77, later died from his injuries. 

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter