The new SOS feature, the watch's new cellular capabilities, and refurbishment at scale seems to have led to headaches for one California community.
For the last four months, police dispatchers in Elk Grove, California have hastily answered phone calls expecting emergencies. Often, however, they are greeted not by a person in need but by an eerie silence broken up only by the occasional muffled muttering of an Apple repair technician.
The calls, which the police have traced back to a single Apple repair and refurbishment facility in Elk Grove, come in everyday and appear to be accidental.
The police department said it has received over 1,600 of these call since October. Sometimes, they can make out the chatter of Apple repair technicians working on the devices in the background, who are seemingly unaware that they have alerted emergency services. While Jimenez said that Apple is working with the department to address the issues, the influx of calls has yet to stop.
A single one of these ghost calls may seem trivial but when multiplied this slip-up can strain police dispatchers and waste time. Jimenez said that unlike a typical accidental calls, these come from phones that do not have a service provider.
Apple did not respond to Motherboard’s inquiries about the incidents but they did release a public statement to Mac Rumors:
“We’re aware of 911 calls originating from our Elk Grove repair and refurbishing facility,” the statement read. “We take this seriously and we are working closely with local law enforcement to investigate the cause and ensure this doesn't continue.”
We don’t know for sure why so many of these Apple devices are calling 911 emergency services, but experts say that it aligns with the release of cellular functionality in the new Apple Watch, and people familiar with the Apple repair industry say that their best guess is that the calls are coming from the watches.
“Apple’s probably the first refurbing [watches] at scale, but every other refurbisher doing testing will run into the same problem,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, told Motherboard in an online chat. “I think they’re trying to power it off and doing it accidentally.”
Indeed, the timing of the events, neatly falls in line with the rollout of Apple’s SOS feature on the iPhone and Apple Watch. These emergency features make contacting police easier and quicker though button shortcuts. On the iPhone 8 and iPhone X this feature works by simultaneously holding down the side button and a volume button for several seconds or by rapidly pressing the side button five times. On the Apple Watch, the process functions by simply holding down the side button for four seconds until the emergency SOS option appears. While this may allow for quicker and more efficient responses to emergency situations it can also increase the odds of error.
One Redditor complained that the Apple Watch SOS had been set off while riding a motorcycle. Another user complained that his watch called the local police while he was doing push ups.
Jason Carroll, founder of independent Apple repair shop Fruit Fixed, told me that when technicians perform initial diagnostics they will often poke around and press the buttons that activate the SOS feature. If damage has occured to render the phone’s screen inoperable, it’s possible that technicians could accidentally swipe and call 911 without ever noticing it, Carroll said.
“It would probably [be easier] for a mistake [on the Apple Watch] because the screen is so much smaller,” he said.
He says that given the large volume of devices that Apple is refurbishing, even a small percentage of errors could translate into many accidental calls.
Jimenez said that the police department could not say exactly which type of devices were making the phone calls.
Though many regular consumers have given their own accounts of embarrassing unintended phone calls, Elk Grove is the only example of this magnitude. In an email to Motherboard, New York Police Department Detective Sophia Mason said the city doesn’t know if it’s had any increase in accidental calls from Apple products.
“We cannot distinguish what type of phone (Apple, Google, Samsung, etc) is used when we receive a 911 call,” she said.
Despite the problems, Jimenez said he is still in favor of the idea behind Apple’s SOS system.
“I think there is a benefit to the feature,” Jimenez said. “As far as safety goes, having that ability to press a button and reach us and have us be able to respond I think is very important. Once that [issue] is resolved, still having the ability to have emergency help at a push of a button is important.”