Colorado 911 Centers Getting Besieged With iPhone False Alarms At Ski Resorts; Warn Wyoming Of Onslaught

With more than 70 false alerts from iPhones over Christmas weekend, a Colorado, search and rescue responder warns it could be a sign of things to come for Wyoming.

Mark Heinz

January 05, 20235 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming has had some struggles with Apple devices sending false alarms to emergency calls centers, but things could get far worse here. 

“We’re the bow of the wave, as it were. We tend to find out about these things early on,” Charles Pitman, a member of the Summit County Rescue Group in Colorado told Cowboy State Daily.

When the wave crashes, it will impact a much larger area around the region, including Wyoming, he said.

Ski Central Becomes 911 Call Central

Summit County is home to four of the nation’s premier ski resorts – Copper Mountain, Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapaho Basin. 

Those resorts open earlier than most other ski areas across the country. 

That’s put the county at the epicenter of a flurry of problems with Apple iPhones, wristwatches and other devices set to automatically send out “fall” or “crash” alerts. 

The devices have been sending automatic calls to 911 centers when skiers biff it, he said – and sometimes even when they don’t. 

“One instance is when you fall,” Pitman said. “The other is when you get on a chairlift. The device senses you moving and thinks you’re in a car. Then you get off the chair and ski down to the bottom. 

“Then, all of the sudden you stop, and the device thinks you’ve been in a car crash.”

Have To Respond

Over the Christmas weekend, the Summit County dispatch center received more than 70 false automated Apple emergency alerts.

While people ultimately weren’t in distress or facing real emergencies, each alert requires a response, which potentially could impact the county’s ability to respond to real emergencies.

Pitman recalls similar problems in Summit County in 2018 with the automatic emergency alert feature on an earlier generation of Apple watches.

Apple “always seem to release these things during ski season,” he said. “In 2018, they seemed to figure it out and had the problem solved by that summer. Didn’t they have notes from back then that they could pass forward?”

After multiple inquiries from Cowboy State Daily, Apple declined to comment about the apparent problems.

Little County Becomes Winter Metropolis

Summit County is similar to some Wyoming communities, with a resident population of about 30,000. But that swells exponentially during ski season. 

It seems to draw larger crowds, and thus more potential emergencies and false alerts, every year, Pitman said. 

“We’re one of the busiest search and rescue teams in the country,” he said. “Five Years ago, we were averaging about 100 calls per year. Now we’re getting 200.”

Having Apple devices flooding the already strained local 911 call center hasn’t helped, he said. 

A Spreading Problem

What’s happening in Summit County is starting to happen in Wyoming and other areas. 

Some Wyoming emergency services officials told Cowboy State Daily that the devices’ false alerts are already causing some headaches this winter.

“I’m wondering what’s happening in Europe, although, I understand that many of their ski areas haven’t opened yet because of a lack of snow,” Pitman said. 

So far, the false alarm mishaps in Summit County have been limited to the ski slopes, Pitman said. 

His Search and Rescue Team hasn’t had to deal with a large-scale debacle as what happened last month in Wyoming, when a false alarm from a snowmobiler’s iPhone ended up scrambling emergency teams in Lincoln and Sublette counties, as well as a chopper crew from Teton County. 

Heard It, Still Blew It Off

The iPhones and Apple watches emit an alarm when the emergency call feature is triggered, giving owners about 30 seconds to stop the call if they aren’t really in trouble. 

The snowmobiler in the Wyoming incident apparently didn’t hear his alarm over the noise of the snowmobile’s engine. Pitman said he’s heard of similar problems in Colorado. 

“One guy who fell while skiing said he did hear the alarm, but he didn’t know what it was, and since it quit after about 30 seconds he just kept skiing,” Pitman said. 

Could Be Some Hope

Pitman said that on Wednesday, somebody from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office told him the torrent of false alarms at the 911 center had waned over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday rush. 

That could mean there may be some hope that Apple has at least started working on the problem. 

“We have offered for an Apple engineer to come sit in our dispatch center to see the effect this is having, but so far, we haven’t heard back from the company,” he added. 

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter