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Smartwatches lead to flurry of 911 calls on the slopes

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Hagadone News Network | January 25, 2023 1:06 AM

SANDPOINT — If you crash on the slopes, did you know your smartwatch may be calling 911?

Since a new feature was added to some smartwatches, the Bonner County Sheriff's Office has seen a dramatic increase in 911 calls from folks enjoying the day on the mountain at Schweitzer resort in Sandpoint.

"Some smartwatches are programmed with a fall detection feature, which calls 911 in the event of a fall," said Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler in a social media post. "Many people don’t know their phones and smartwatches do this."

In a review of dispatch logs, nine of the 64 calls to 911 over Christmas weekend — Dec. 23 to 26 — originated in the Schweitzer resort area, with the most coming Monday, Dec. 26, when seven of the 20 calls appear to have originated at that location.

On New Year's weekend — Dec. 30 to Jan. 1 — a total of 49 calls to 911 were reported during that timeframe. Of those, 15 were reported as originating in the Schweitzer area with the most reported Dec. 31, when 10 of 28 calls to 911 originated at that location.

On Jan. 8, at least 30% of 911 calls received by Bonner Dispatch were unintentional calls from people at Schweitzer who had taken a tumble on the slopes, Wheeler said in a recent social media post.

The weekend of Jan. 20-22 saw 34 total 911 calls logged at the dispatch center with nine of them originating at or near the resort.

A review of dispatch logs shows a total of 74 calls to 911 during that weekend, with 22 of them originating on Schweitzer Mountain Road or associated roads at the Sandpoint area resort.

During the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, a total of 70 calls to 911 came in over the four-day timeframe. Of those 911 calls, 23 originated in the area of Schweitzer Mountain Road or associated roads near the resort.

"We're mainly just trying to let people know that that [fall detection feature] exists," Capt. Tim Hemphill, BCSO public information officer, said. "Because I think a lot of people who have those watches probably don't even know. We're trying to let them know, that exists, and they can maybe disable that function when they're skiing or snowboarding."

Hemphill said that most of the time, dispatch crews can quickly verify whether an emergency exists; either because the people stayed on the line or because they spoke to the person when they called the number associated with the watch.

"I think people don't even realize that's happening when they're active and that kind of thing," he said. "They may not even realize what's going on."

Smartwatch companies, including Apple and Samsung, have added fall detection to the popular devices over the past several years to alert emergency services or contacts to a possible fall or medical emergency.

"Both Bonner County 911 and our patrol deputies treat each 911 call as an emergency until we can verify otherwise," Wheeler said. "These unintentional 911 calls can take emergency resources away from true emergencies somewhere else in the county."

Wheeler encouraged smartwatch owners to check the settings on their phones, or the device's user manual to learn more about the feature.

He encouraged people to share news about the problem with family and friends. The more people who know about the issue — and ensure their settings are appropriately set — the better, Wheeler said.

"Help us reduce the unnecessary impact on your emergency services," he said.

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