Smartwatches are calling 911 from the slopes

Clear Creek dispatchers are getting calls from the ski slopes, but not from people —from their wrists

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Clear Creek County 911 dispatchers are getting increased calls from the ski slopes, but not from people in distress — rather, their watches are calling for help when the owner takes a tumble. 

Increasingly, people wear smartwatches and other devices to track their workouts, but some of these devices are tracking other activities, too. Many watches have the ability to track a “hard fall” or crash that its user is involved in and automatically call for emergency help.

In a sport known for messy falls, not every crash while skiing or snowboarding is an emergency. 911 dispatchers have been getting increased calls from smart watches at Loveland Ski Area, sometimes even as many as eight a day according to dispatcher Tom Dale. 

“We’re pretty routinely, almost every day, getting at least one crash,” Dale said. “We’re getting more this year than we have in the past.” 

The dispatchers aren’t ignoring these calls, though. While many of the calls might be false alarms, Dale has seen a watch help an injured skier firsthand. 

“We received a call from an older gentleman….this gentleman was obviously disoriented, possibly had loss of consciousness briefly….we were able to verify his location and notify ski patrol,” Dale said. 

When it detects a crash, the smartwatch will call 911 and give an announcement about the crash. The watch will identify the device and GPS coordinates of the owner, and dispatch will attempt to call back the owner to verify if it was a true emergency. 

Often, since watches are buried under layers of cold weather gear, skiers can’t hear the message from dispatch trying to verify their information. That’s when the information gets passed on to Ski Patrol at Loveland to make sure everything is okay on the mountain. 

John Sellers is a spokesperson for Loveland Ski Area. He said Loveland hopes to reduce false alarms in order to preserve resources. 

“We are working with the sheriff's department and other ski areas to figure out how to mitigate these calls,” Sellers said. 

“Obviously, this could be a very beneficial tool in certain circumstances,” Sellers added. 

Dale Atkins is a member of the Alpine Rescue Team who has spent years working in the outdoor industry. He spent 2007 to 2019 working for RECCO, a company specializing in rescue technology. 

Atkins said false alarms aren’t new, and neither is the idea of wearable technology. 

“The idea of wearable technologies has really been evolving over the past couple of decades,” he said. 

Working at RECCO, Atkins was at the table to see many of the companies first pursuing crash detection technology. 

He recalled the work of the company OnStar, which pioneered some of the first crash detection technology in vehicles over 20 years ago. 

As technology advanced, more companies began incorporating it into their products. 

“As the censor got smaller, it became very attractive,” Atkins said. 

The Apple Watch 4, released in 2018, was the first one to have fall detection technology. 

As the accessory became less expensive and more accessible, greater usership has caused an increase in false crash calls, as experienced by Clear Creek dispatch. 

Atkins sees the value of the technology that has been evolving for years, and suspects the bumps will be ironed out with further development. 

“It's a wonderful concept…..but it comes with a pretty significant false alarm rate that is a big problem for sheriffs’ department and ski patrols, and eventually maybe even mountain rescue teams,” he said. 

Correction: In an earlier version of this story Alpine Rescue Team was incorrectly referred to as Alpine Search and Rescue. RECCO technology specializes in rescue technology, not avalanche receivers. 

Clear Creek, loveland ski area, skiing, smartwatches, dispatch, emergency

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