Fact or Fiction: Do Tricks on Apple Devices Really Dial 9-1-1?

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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911callIn February 2018, over 1,600 accidental dial 9-1-1 activations were received from a phone refurbishing center in California, which caused a huge issue for 9-1-1 dispatch centers in the area. It's suspected that the Emergency SOS feature might be the culprit.

When iOS 11 was released, it was so packed with features that the Emergency SOS feature was hardly mentioned at all. In fact, an explanation of how to use the feature did not initially appear on Apple's Support pages. In November, it finally attracted more attention after being circulated by Safety Officials via social media using the hashtag #themoreyouknow.

Knowing how to use Emergency SOS on iOS11 certainly helped a woman from Wimauma, Fla. in February this year. The woman was attacked while walking along US 301, but had the presence of mind to activate the feature during the attack and call 9-1-1. Although unable to speak, the call sent GPS coordinates to dispatchers, who were able to direct deputies to the scene of the attack.

Emergency Call Features on Older iPhones

The latest iPhone operating system is not the only one to have an Emergency Call feature. On iOS 7 and older models, if you quickly press the side button five times an SOS icon appears on the lock screen. Simply drag the SOS icon to the right, and the call to 9-1-1 is activated. A similar process exists on iPhone 8, iPhone 8Plus and iPhone X, but the feature has to be activated from the settings screen.

The default Emergency Call feature on iPhone 8, iPhone 8Plus and iPhone X is activated by pressing and holding the side button and either of the volume buttons. You should only have to hold them for a couple of seconds before the SOS icon appears. The same process works on Apple Watch 3 or later, provided your iPhone is in range or you are connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Known Issues with the Emergency SOS Feature

Whereas Emergency SOS is proven to have been helpful in contacting 9-1-1, and calls can be stopped if you activate the feature by accident, there are issues. Accidental calls to 9-1-1 (also known as “pocket calls” or “butt calls”) are easy to make and, according to research conducted by Google, account for 29 percent of calls received by dispatchers. Some dispatchers claim the figure is higher.

Google's research highlighted the volume of resources required to deal with accidental calls to 9-1-1. Dispatchers are required to call back all unresponsive 9-1-1 calls, and each call on average takes a minute to complete. With 240 million calls made annually to 9-1-1, and 80 percent of those originating from mobile devices, dispatchers are spending 928,000 hours each year dealing with accidental calls.

A problem with calling back unresponsive 9-1-1 calls made from mobile devices is that many device users are reluctant to answer (and often block) calls from “Unknown ID”. Many calls go unanswered, meaning that dispatchers are unaware whether or not the accidental call is genuine. When the location from which the call was made can be identified, police are dispatched to the location - placing a potentially unnecessary strain on police resources.

How Text-from-911 can Mitigate the Consequences of Accidental Calls

Text-from-911 is a service implemented in a limited number of jurisdictions, using which dispatchers can send a text to a mobile device from which an unresponsive 9-1-1 call has originated. The service can provide a valuable means of communication for people who are deaf or who are in an emergency situation due to which they cannot communicate verbally.

The service was implemented in Indiana in 2013 and adopted as the primary outreach method to mobile devices. Speaking in a “State of 911 Webinar” in 2015, Barry Ritter - the Executive Director of the Indiana 911 Board - told delegates the use of text templates reduced the amount of timing spent “calling back” to seconds, and that the service had a response rate of 80 percent due to mobile users being more willing to engage in a text dialogue with an “Unknown ID” than a voice dialogue.

In addition to being able to reduce the resources dedicated to dealing with accidental calls, callers unable to speak in a genuine emergency are able to engage in a two-way conversation that accelerates the speed at which help is dispatched. The service can also be used for third party welfare checks, in which a caller is concerned for the well being of a friend or family member who is unlikely to answer a voice call from an “Unknown ID”.

Find Out More about Text-from-911

In his presentation, Ritter described Text-from-911 as an “efficient use of time” and stated it had improved public safety for Indiana. If you would like to know more about how Text-from-911 can efficiently improve public safety in your jurisdiction, do not hesitate to contact us and request a demonstration of the Rave 911 Suite featuring Text-from-911.  

Find out More about Text-from-911

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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