Durango first responders see spike in 911 calls due to smartphones

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DURANGO, CO. – Did you know your smartphone or watch could be programmed to make a call to 911 on your behalf, if it believes you’ve been in a crash? But what happens when taking a spill is part of the activity you are doing, like skiing or snowboarding?

Those false emergency calls from the slopes are increasingly common at the La Plata Emergency Communication Center in Durango. 

“With the advent of winter sports our technology is getting smarter all the time and a lot of our devices, whether they are cellphones or wearable watches, have the ability to detect crashes or falls,” said Zeta Fail, director of Durango’s 911 Communication Center. 

If your phone detects a crash in the mountains, it could wind up in a call to dispatch.

“Most of the time there’s a hang-up, no voice contact and that results in us having to try and call the person back, try to determine if there is an emergency,” Fail added. “Depending on the situation and the area we may have to end up dispatching a responder, and notifying officers, and or fire agencies in that area that we received a call.”

From November to December false calls to 911 have increased by 25%, over October which was already up 15% – effectively taking away resources.

“When we are tied up trying to call these people back there are still calls coming in, we still have the real emergencies coming in,” Fail said. “We have two to three dispatchers on at a time, and if it’s a busy winter sport day we may have every one of them tied up on trying to track down someone who just called 911 accidentally.”

And that can cause a snowball effect.

“It will send the coordinates with the 911 call, and a text message will go to your emergency contacts with coordinates, and if the emergency contact doesn’t know what the situation is, than they may call us and give us coordinates so we could get multiple calls over one crash detection,” said Fail. 

Fail said that the best thing to do is if your phone dials 911 by mistake, is to stay on the line to tell the operator that you don’t need emergency assistance. If caught early enough, people can stop the phone from making an accidental call.