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B.C. search and rescue teams brace for more Apple iPhone false alarms

Image Credit: Contributed/19 Wing Comox

B.C. search and rescue crews are expecting more false alarms in the backcountry thanks to a new Apple crash detection feature on phones and Apple watches.

Golden Search and Rescue sent crews to at least three false alarms in two days where skiers and snowmobilers were in the backcountry and their devices detected a crash, according to a social media post from the organization yesterday, Dec. 13.

They didn't need help, but Golden RCMP estimates rescue calls can cost up to $10,000 for equipment and first responders at the scene.

Apple's crash detection has so far only sent a false alarm to Golden Search and Rescue, but teams across the province are waiting for theirs.

"It has the potential to be a lifesaver, but it also has the potential to cause a lot of grief," senior manager of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association Dwight Yochim said.

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iPhone 14, 14 pro, Apple Watch 8, Watch SE and Watch Ultra may find their latest software update automatically turns on crash detection. If the device feels a sudden jolt or stop, it may automatically call 9-1-1 and send a location for emergency services if not addressed within 20 seconds.

It's designed for severe car crashes, and has the option to include medical information for first responders and additional contacts like family and friends, according to Apple.

Yochim said anyone venturing into the B.C. backcountry for ski touring or snowmobiling should already have avalanche training, beacons and a friend in case something goes wrong. However, phones can also disrupt an avalanche beacon's signal, so they are often tucked away from beacons and can be hard to reach in a hurry.

"We think it's a brilliant idea. A few of our members have the latest devices, too," Ed Henczel of Central Okanagan Search and Rescue said. "The big take home is people need to be aware of this."

The Central Okanagan team is on the lookout for false alarms as the winter sets in, but he added even avalanche beacons can send false alarms.

"The deal with personal locator beacons... is it's easy to get in touch with the companies. Apple is a little different," Henczel said, explaining that it's more difficult to contact the tech company for information when there's a crash detected.

He said even if crews respond to a false alarm, they'd rather go where they aren't needed than not be called at all.

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"Rescues are free in B.C.. There's no charge. We're happy to come and get stood down than have people wait," Henczel said.

Yochim with the provincial search and rescue organization said they meeting with Apple today, Dec. 14, to address their concerns around false alarms.

"When you get three in one weekend, you don't want that," he said. "We're trying to nip this in the bud."

It's not clear what solution they may come to, but Yochim's hopeful it will spare teams across the province from wasted callouts.

He and Henczel both added that a smartphone or watch with crash detection is no replacement for backcountry gear and training, especially in avalanche country.

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"It'll never replace an avalanche beacon. It's designed to contact 9-1-1 and only if you're in cell service," Yochim said. "When search and rescue gets a call for someone in an avalanche, you've got about 15 minutes to survive. You depend so much on your partner. By the time we get there, it's often a recovery."

More people have been in the B.C. backcountry in the past few years than before, whether it's skiing, snowmobiling or mountain biking, and search and rescue crews, like the Central Okanagan team, have been getting record amounts of calls.

Anyone interested in exploring the province's backcountry should visit the B.C. Search and Rescue Association's outdoor education website here.

More information about avalanche preparedness and training can be found at Avalanche Canada here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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