911 dispatchers seek assistance after issues with Apple’s built-in safety features

Investigations

CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) – In a nondescript warehouse, within a cluster of Carlisle warehouses, Apple iPhones and Apple Watches are repaired and refurbished. It’s one of two major Apple facilities in the U.S. The other is in California.

The devices are very popular with consumers but not so much with dispatchers at Cumberland County’s 911 dispatch center. ABC27 has learned that many of those phones and watches being repaired accidentally call in nonexistent emergencies.

The culprit is a feature called Emergency SOS, which makes it easy to notify authorities; too easy, some would argue. In iPhone 8s, for instance, when buttons on either side of the phone are held in simultaneously, a five- second countdown pops up. If that’s not stopped before it gets to zero, 911 is called automatically.

It’s believed that in the repair facility, phones may have been packed closely together and somehow those buttons were pushed and held down.

In answering ABC27’s right to know request, Cumberland County confirms that since 2016, 5,037 erroneous 911 calls have come from the Apple facility. The worst month was October 2017 when 1,611 accidental 911 calls were made. We’re told there were some days when more than a hundred came into the center.

It’s still a problem, but it has steadily decreased. Last month, there were 114 phony phone calls. So far this month: 44. 

“For a small dispatch center like Cumberland County communications, that can quickly overwhelm their dispatchers and take them away from things they need to be doing,” said John Sancenito, of INA Investigations and a former police officer. “It is definitely a drain on resources to have to address those calls.”

Apple sent ABC27 this statement:

“The life-saving SOS feature on an iPhone makes it possible for anyone to place an emergency call quickly. Sometimes when a damaged phone is sent to a repair and refurbishment facility, a device can inadvertently call 911. We’ve taken steps to prevent this from happening and brought down the number of calls dramatically through software updates and changes to handling procedures at the repair facility. We take this work very seriously and will continue to work with local law enforcement and city officials.”

That last sentence is exactly the same language Apple used in February 2018 when it responded to reports that its Elk Grove, California, repair facility accidentally made more than 1,600 accidental 911 calls over a four-month period.

So what’s being done to fix the problem here? Has it come at a cost to Cumberland County taxpayers? The county refuses to comment, though sources say Apple executives have come from California to Carlisle and met with county officials. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, a county spokeswoman confirmed that negotiations with Apple continue in an attempt to resolve the issue. The statement did not elaborate.

ABC27 went directly to the Carlisle facility, DB Schenker, seeking answers. Phones may be their business, but communicating is not.

“I’m gonna need to ask you to leave, please,” said a security guard who denied us access to the building.

The guard promised to pass on our contact information to management. We also made repeated calls to local and national Schenker officials over several weeks. Those calls, unlike the mistaken ones at the 911 center, were never answered or responded to.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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