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Smartwatches lead to flurry of 911 calls on the slopes

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | January 22, 2023 1:00 AM

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

Since fall detection was added to some smartwatches, Bonner County Sheriff's Daryl Wheeler said in a recent Facebook post that the department has seen a dramatic increase in 911 calls from folks enjoying the day at Schweitzer.

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

In a review of dispatch logs, nine of the sixty-four 911 calls over Christmas weekend — Dec. 23-26 — originated in the Schweitzer resort area, with the most coming on 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 forty-nine 911 calls were reported during that timeframe. Of those, 15 were reported as originating in the Schweitzer area with the most reported on Dec. 31 when 10 of the 28 911 calls originated at that location.

On Jan. 8, at least 30 percent 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 9 of them originating at or near the resort.

A review of dispatch logs shows a total of 74 911 calls 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 70 911 calls over the four-day timeframe. Of those 911 calls, 23 of which originated in the area of Schweitzer Mountain Road or associated roads near the resort. A majority of the 911 calls came on Jan. 14-15, with eight of the 19 calls on Saturday coming from Schweitzer and 10 of the 26 calls coming from the area of the resort on Sunday.

"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 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 phone, 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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