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SOS to Apple: Fix this

Sunday, November 13, 2022

A sheriff’s deputy roared into our driveway the other morning, rang the bell, and asked my wife if she knew my whereabouts.

Alarmed at first, then puzzled, Amy answered honestly: “He’s gone over to the Apple Store to see if they can fix his iPhone.”

Across town, I was telling a friendly clerk named Sheila how I had been walking our dog when the phone in my pants pocket made an odd sound. Finding that the screen was frozen, I tried to power it off. This action somehow triggered an SOS call to 911. Soon I heard a police dispatcher offering help, but she was unable to hear me. I tried repeatedly to shut-off the phone and each time another 911 call was triggered.

Sheila didn’t seem surprised. She said such an occurrence — a “glitch” is what she called it — happens frequently. Indeed, the deputy was telling Amy the same thing: Increased use of smartphones and watches is causing a rash of accidental emergency calls and distracting officers from legitimate missions.

Of the many mixed blessings that technology has bestowed upon us, this is a doozy. Yes, many people have been rescued by their smart devices — as commercial reenactments for Apple watches so dramatically illustrate. Yet, as I poked around local news sites I found that numerous municipalities have been struggling with time consuming false alarms.

Two summers ago, the state police in Maine noticed what Lt. Brian Harris termed “quite an uptick” in accidental emergency calls. He mentioned a local golfer who placed his phone in his cart’s cup holder as he bounced around the course, unaware that the movement was initiating calls to 911.

In Grand Traverse County, Michigan, police get about 120 emergency calls a day and about every fourth one is a misdial.

In Canada, the E-Comm emergency service says accidental calls are flooding its lines. In a news release, E-Comm said operators often hear singing in the background or cheering at sporting events during 911 calls. Still, the operators must do whatever is needed to confirm it is not an actual emergency.

There has been publicity recently about problems with the iPhone 14 Pro’s car-crash detection system. A significant number of false reports come from amusement parks, where roller coasters and other high-speed rides are fooling the devices into thinking the owner has been in a crash. The Arkansas State Fair put out a warning last month about false iPhone messaging. In Sevier County, Tennessee, dispatchers reported a 150 percent increase in bogus 911 calls, most of them from the Dollywood amusement park.

But as my experience (with an iPhone 12) confirms, the problem goes beyond crash detection. With some Apple products, simply holding the side button for several seconds can trigger an SOS. Depending on the information stored on the device, this can result in emergency messages being sent to not only police but to your personal contacts as well.

A check of Apple message boards shows that complaints go back several years. Typical was the 2019 post from “TH55” who reported making three accidental calls to 911 and wrote, “Emergency SOS is literally the stupidest feature Apple has ever implemented.”

Apple’s website provides instructions on how to end emergency calls that are triggered by mistake. “If you start an emergency call by accident, tap the End Call button, then tap Yes to confirm that you want to stop the call,” it explains. But Apple says continuing to hold the buttons down will automatically prompt an SOS call.

With police and rescue personnel stretched thin in many parts of the country, it’s unacceptable for hundreds of false alarms to be triggered needlessly. As my experience showed, simply walking with an iPhone in your pocket can lead to the dispatching of police, while the phone’s owner is unable to communicate or correct the error. It turns out that just last month Apple issued the first beta version of its iOS 16.2 software. It doesn’t correct the problem, but it does include a new option for users to notify Apple whenever they accidentally report an emergency.

I suppose that’s a start. But it would be better to implement an actual fix that preserves the life-saving aspects of smartphone technology without sending so many police officers on wild SOS chases.

Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at CandidCamera. com.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666