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False alarm: Apple Watches calling 911 in Red Lodge when skiers crash

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Posted at 8:50 AM, Jan 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-13 10:50:44-05

RED LODGE — Many smartphones have quick access to dial 911 in the event of an emergency. And now Apple Watches can detect a crash and alert the authorities if there’s been one.

But they can’t always differentiate between a vehicle crash and just wrecking on the ski hill, which is creating a unique challenge for Carbon County dispatchers and Red Lodge Mountain.

A call to 911 is always taken seriously. If you’re a dispatcher near a ski hill, there may be an increase in false alarms from falling skiers after updates on the newest operating systems on the watches, the Apple 14.

"When people crash up there and they have these watches, they automatically dial 911, but then it’s an open-ended line. So, our dispatchers are able to tell if there’s a true emergency or if they can hear the rustling in the background and that it’s just a misdial. We took our numbers from 911 misdials from previous years, even last year, and they’re up 30% this year," said Carbon County Sheriff Josh McQuillan on Wednesday.

On the mountain, Red Lodge Mountain General Manager Jeff Schmidt says the constant calls from wrecks could cause more harm than good.

"The watch doesn’t know if you fell and broke your back or if you slipped on a piece of ice and you’re getting back up. But if the watch is set to that, and calls 911, to me it’s a problem. It robs the resources of 911 for something else," said Schmidt on Wednesday.

The watches use GPS to determine speed, and microphone activity that can be used to help signal a crash and even G-Force detection. But it’s the GPS location that's helping emergency dispatchers figure out what’s really going on.

"As long as we can see the person coming down from the top of the mountain, making their way down to the bottom. It doesn’t worry as much so long as we do have movement for the skier who was involved," said Gary Foechterle, dispatch supervisor for Carbon County on Wednesday.

"Where our concern is, when we get that call, and the coordinates don’t change," added McQuillan.

Carbon County says they’re receiving about two calls a day from ski crashes. It's an annoyance, but one the dispatch supervisor is happy to live with.

"God forbid you forget to turn that back on when you leave the mountain and end up in crash. We’d rather not even risk that, and I’d rather have a couple 911s that were a misdial or the false alarm type things than actually have something happen and we don’t actually get notice of it," added Foechterle.