An iPhone stashed in the glovebox of a snowmobile zipping around British Columbia’s backcountry incorrectly concluded that its owner had suffered a severe crash this past Sunday, placing an emergency call that triggered a search involving an extended helicopter flight and sending RCMP officers in neighbouring Alberta doorknocking to find information about the apparent victim.
The following day, Golden and District Search and Rescue received two more emergency calls related to Apple Inc.’s new crash detection system, which claims to use motion sensors to determine when a user has been in a severe vehicle collision. In those instances, Apple’s system indicated that the suspected crash sites were within the boundaries of the local ski resort, hinting at more incorrect alerts.
And a similar thing happened on Saturday near Rossland, B.C., where police believe a skier’s phone mistakenly called for help.
The string of false alarms are prompting search-and-rescue teams to press Apple to tweak the crash detection system, which was first unveiled in September. They argue that errors such as the ones reported in the past few days put time, money and lives at risk.
Apple boasts its new crash detection software for select iPhones and watches can “detect severe car crashes” and will automatically connect to emergency services if a device’s user does not dismiss alerts within 20 seconds. Stomach-flipping rides at amusement parks in the United States set off Apple’s crash detection system in September and another wave of unnecessary 911 calls rolled in when ski hills opened south of the border. Experts believe Apple’s crash detection system placed its first faulty calls in B.C. this past weekend.
“We’ve been waiting for the Apple problem,” Kyle Hale, the manager of Golden and District Search and Rescue (GADSAR), said in an interview Tuesday. “We kind of anticipated [Sunday’s call] being a false activation, but we had to resource it, so we got in a helicopter and flew 40 minutes out into the middle of nowhere.”
An Apple spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
A dispatch centre in the United States informed RCMP about the emergency call near Golden on Sunday around noon, Mr. Hale said. The GPS co-ordinates showed the emergency site around Kinbasket Lake, near Hope Creek. Because that is a remote area in the backcountry, the RCMP called in GADSAR. Two rescuers and a helicopter pilot beelined to the site, finding no one there.
The crew then buzzed around the alpine, looking for sledders in need of rescue. They stopped a couple of groups as they attempted to locate the missing sledder. Finally, they found the snowmobiler whose device called for help, who was OK but embarrassed, Mr. Hale said. The crash detection system appeared to have activated when the iPhone bounced around in the glovebox and the sledder failed to dismiss the alerts, he said.
The snowmobiler’s number was tied to Alberta, which meant Mounties from the sledder’s hometown went searching at their home, said Mr. Hale. Officers also went “door-to-door” in that community looking for information, he said.
Mr. Hale estimated that the search cost $10,000. The bill for the helicopter goes to the province. GADSAR has an annual budget of about $300,000 and 35 volunteers, he said.
Monday’s calls were less dramatic, because the GPS co-ordinates placed the alleged crashes on Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, which opened just three days earlier. GADSAR handed off the assignment to the mountain’s ski patrol, which checked the suspected crash sites. They didn’t find any injured skiers or snowboarders, suggesting that whoever triggered the alerts were unharmed. The RCMP in Golden did not return a message seeking comment.
The RCMP in Trail, B.C., dealt with a similar situation over the weekend. On Saturday morning, a smart watch provided GPS details and stated its owner had a “severe car accident” in nearby Rossland. “Officers and [Emergency Health Services] conducted extensive patrols for the alleged motor vehicle incident; however, the search turned up empty,” the force said in a news release on Tuesday. “Additionally, first responders did not receive a report of a motor vehicle incident in the Rossland area.”
Officers later learned of Apple’s new safety feature. “The investigating officers concluded that someone may have fallen while skiing at the local resort and the fall triggered the ‘severe car accident’ alert,” the news release said.
Apple’s crash detection system is on by default. Search-and-rescue leaders argue the firm needs to calibrate the sensitivity of the system and consider making it opt-in. They also worry that casual backcountry users might rely on Apple’s systems instead of carrying equipment such as avalanche beacons and satellite devices that can send and receive messages.
Dwight Yochim, a senior manager of B.C. Search and Rescue Association, said his organization made contact with Apple on Monday over concerns tied to its fall detection system. Under that program, certain Apple watches place emergency calls if it detects a hard fall and one minute of immobility. Mr. Yochim, whose group represents the 78 ground search-and-rescue teams in the province, said he expects to add the crash detection system to his list of concerns.
“I don’t think they accounted for the people in British Columbia who love the outdoors and go into the backwoods and literally crash through the backwoods, whether it is on mountain bikes, whether it is on skis,” Mr. Yochim said. “It clearly doesn’t take a whole lot to trigger it.”