Apple updates software after crash-detection system prompts false alarms in backcountry

Apple updates software after crash-detection system prompts false alarms in backcountry

Authorities in Canada and the United States have flagged concerns related to the sensitivity of Apple’s crash detection system, which recently triggered a search-and-rescue mission in the backcountry in BCJeff Bassett/The Canadian Press

Apple Inc. released a software update this week that it hopes will prevent its devices from placing unnecessary emergency calls, such as the one that prompted a search-and-rescue mission into British Columbia’s back country and a police response in Alberta, although the company declined to detail what changes it implemented.

The company released its new “crash detection” system in September and over the past week in BC, iPhones and Apple watches have triggered at least four false alarms. The feature is supposed to pick up on whether someone has been in a serious vehicle crash and, if so, send messages to emergency officials or emergency contacts if the device’s user does not quickly dismiss alerts.

Apple posted a description of the update online, explaining that the patch includes “optimizations” for crash detection on its iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro models. The company declined to comment.

Authorities in Canada and the United States have flagged concerns related to the crash detection system’s sensitivity. Since Dec. 10 in BC, it has been set off by a snowmobiler in the backcountry and three people authorities believe were skiing or snowboarding at resorts. Collectively, these faulty messages triggered responses from RCMP in BC and Alberta, Emergency Health Services, a search and rescue crew in Golden, and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s ski patrol.

British Columbia Search and Rescue Association officials met with representatives from Apple on Wednesday, according to BCSARA manager Dwight Yochim. BCSARA originally requested the meeting to discuss its concerns over Apple’s emergency SOS via satellite technology, however, the organization used the session to seek information related to the company’s crash detection feature in light of the wave of false alarms.

The crash detection system uses an accelerometer, listens for noise like breaking glass or metal crunching and has an atmospheric pressure gauge that picks up on airbag activity, Mr. Yochim said. “They have all of this stuff built in,” he said, noting this isn’t enough to stop false activations. While Apple did not disclose the changes included in the patch, BCSARA is encouraging Apple users to update their devices and check their settings.

BCSARA first requested the meeting after Apple introduced a system that allows select iPhones to call or text emergency services via satellite when out of cell and WiFi range. (The crash detection system uses this system when WiFi and cell services are not available). The group was concerned the system only placed outgoing messages, leaving would-be rescuers scrambling for more details.

However, Apple told BCSARA that it is a two-way communications system and search-and-rescue personnel can directly contact the company’s emergency teams to gather more information about potential emergency situations, such as whether the subjects are moving or able to provide more details .

Apple, Mr. Yochim said, was “extremely responsive” to the group’s concerns over the SOS program and provided BCSARA with training material for managers. Mr. Yochim said Apple offered to conduct webinars for search-and-rescue managers.

Kelly Furey, a spokeswoman for E-Comm 9-1-1, which operates emergency call centers in BC, said her organization does not tally calls placed through automatic systems such as Apple’s crash detection feature, but it is aware “some police agencies have been impacted by these false 911 calls.” E-Comm, she said, has “advised” Apple of these issues.

Sonia Sinha, a spokeswoman for Alberta Public Safety and Emergency Services, said local 911 call centers in the province have not yet reported any “issues” with Apple’s crash detection program.

Apple on Oct. 19 made a presentation to 911 professionals in Canada as part of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) emergency services working group meetings, Ms. Sinha said. “Apple explained how their new crash detection tool works, and they have made training and support resources available,” she said in a statement, noting more than 200 people who worked in the 911 system were present.

The CRTC did not respond to messages seeking comment about the presentation and Apple’s faulty emergency calls.

A separate Apple system, designed to detect falls, also appears to be generating unnecessary messages. About two weeks ago in Kimberley, BC, search and rescue respondents to an emergency message from an Apple device indicating someone suffered a “hard fall,” according to Patrick Reid, a manager with Kimberley SAR. The watch’s owner was cross-country skate skiing on groomed trials and had saved Kimberley SAR as one of his emergency contacts. The skiers had not fallen.