- A string of false 911 calls from an Apple repair facility has for months plagued a city near Sacramento.
- The calls appear to originate from iPhones being repaired – and at one point, they tied up all six emergency lines for the city of Elk Grove, California.
- The city has been working with Apple to resolve the problem but has been frustrated by Apple’s inability to stop the phones from calling the emergency lines.
A city near Sacramento has been dealing with a never-ending string of false emergency calls from a nearby Apple repair facility.
Between October 20 and February 23, the police department in Elk Grove, California, received 2,028 calls on its 911 lines originating from the Apple facility – an average of 16 calls a day.
At one point in January, the calls tied up all six of Elk Grove’s 911 lines, according to public documents reviewed by Business Insider.
“They lit us up like a Christmas tree,” one dispatcher wrote in in an email to other dispatchers.
It was obvious to Elk Grove police that the 911 calls were not emergencies but rather the equivalent of accidental “butt dials,” mysteriously ringing the city’s hotline on an assembly-line scale.
For whatever reason, many of the iPhones being repaired at the Apple facility were going rogue and dialling 911. But for city officials trying to stop the nuisance and ensure that a critical emergency resource was not overburdened, fixing the problem has not been easy.
Though they have acknowledged Apple’s responsiveness to their pleas for help, Elk Grove officials have been frustrated by the company’s inability to fix the problem. At one point, they even discussed involving the state government and sending police to the facility.
The Apple facility is a point of pride in the city of 170,000 people, providing the kinds of manufacturing jobs for which many US towns are clamoring. But Elk Grove’s experience grappling with the 911 ghost calls also illustrates the unexpected challenges in hosting a branch of a multinational corporation whose business is built on secrecy and innovation.
The 911 calls, which are usually silent or have background noise on the line, came to light last month in a report from a local CBS affiliate. Despite the subsequent international attention, the problem is ongoing – but its scope has diminished, Jason Jimenez, Elk Grove’s public information officer, told Business Insider.
“The calls have not stopped but have significantly decreased,” he said in a statement on Monday. “We are continuing to work with Apple in hopes of resolving the issue.”
Jimenez said in February that “at this point, public safety is not in danger.”
“We’re aware of 911 calls originating from our Elk Grove repair and refurbishment facility,” an Apple representative told Business Insider on Tuesday. “We take this seriously and we are working closely with local law enforcement to investigate the cause to ensure this doesn’t continue.”
The sudden influx of 911 calls last fall led to a minor crisis at Elk Grove’s police department.
Officials knew the calls were coming from Apple, but because of the company’s secrecy, nobody knew exactly where in the facility they were coming from – not even Apple.
In an email to Elk Grove dispatchers on February 21, an Elk Grove manager said she’d had weekly conference calls with Apple’s global security division and had narrowed it down to an issue with “iPhone 8, 8 Plus, X and the Apple Watch.”
The calls are described in the Elk Grove reports as “NSI,” or non-service initialized, because they originate from devices that haven’t yet been activated. According to the manager, Apple said that turning off emergency calls for an unactivated phone was not an option because of Federal Communications Commission regulations.
While the calls were typically short and dispatchers could quickly identify them, many at Elk Grove’s dispatch center worried about their effect.
When Elk Grove escalated the issue, a state official said the issue was a risk to the city.
The 911 manager at California’s Office of Emergency Services “took the stance that each one of these calls put the community at risk since the Complaint taker could be delayed when answering a real call due to NSI,” the Elk Grove manager wrote in a February 26 email. “While that is technically true if the worst scenario occurred, with our staffing levels and very high answering rates, that is not something that I have focused on. My focus is the busy out of all the trunks.”
On January 17, all six lines, or “trunks,” were occupied at one time, according to a report from the 911 service provider, meaning anyone trying to call 911 at that time may have received a busy signal.
Exactly what has been causing the phones to make the ghost calls continues to be an enigma, though the main suspect is some sort of problem with the packaging that could cause buttons to be pressed.
The Elk Grove dispatch manager wrote: “Apple has done the following in an attempt to try and mitigate these calls: Changed their packaging twice. Unfortunately, the first change did not yield a decrease in these calls. We are currently waiting on the next order of 30,000 new packaging trays to arrive and be used in production to see if this will help.
“They are looking into the possibility of creating and purchasing cell phone sleeves that disable all cell phone service to place the phones in prior to shipping,” she continued. “They are actively working with their programming team to see how to prevent this issue on future phone and watch releases.”
An internal report on December 28 gives some more detail about what Apple thought the problem was.
Deb Burger, an Apple global security officer, “thought the issue was narrowed down to packaging on the new iPhone 8 which was recently launched, or the storage trays the new iPhones were placed on at the facility,” Jamie Hudson, an Elk Grove dispatch supervisor, wrote.
“Since the new phones were a bit bigger, it was believed the phone pressed up against the side of the box when stacked, causing it to call 911,” Hudson said, adding that Apple told him it was manufacturing new storage trays.
But the trays didn’t help, according to the internal report, and the police department was frustrated that the packaging redesign didn’t work either.
With the help of Elk Grove’s city manager, the department was able to get in touch with Mike Foulkes, Apple’s government liaison, at the end of January, months after the calls started.
Apple eventually agreed to a process with the police department in which a stray 911 call would be transferred back to Apple so it could identify the problem inside its facility.
They quickly found that one 911 call in February came from an iPhone 8 Plus on the “north wall iPhone repair line,” the Elk Grove documents say, and that it was caused by “the side buttons being held together while phones were placed next to each other.”
Still, in the records Business Insider has reviewed, no one has been able to pinpoint the reason for the ghost calls.
The original iMac
The documents also show the careful balancing act municipalities have to strike with Apple, which is much larger and more powerful than the cities and counties where it decides to settle.
Apple wants discretion and coordination with these places, while local governments are often more concerned with ensuring the city functions properly.
Apple’s Elk Grove warehouse, one of its older satellite facilities, has been there since 1991 and used to be a manufacturing facility for Macs – including the iconic candy-coloured iMacs – before Apple outsourced its manufacturing to Asia.
Around 2015, though, it started growing rapidly once again and added hundreds of employees – who officially worked for Pegatron Technology Services – to fix iPhones, according to The Mercury News. Now the facility services 30,000 phones a day, according to the Elk Grove records.
In recent months, Apple has made an effort to highlight the jobs it creates in the US. Last year, it announced plans to build a new campus and hire 20,000 additional employees, though a location hasn’t been disclosed.
But no matter where Apple’s new campus ends up, those city officials should hope that Apple CEO Tim Cook doesn’t forget about them after the ribbon is cut. As the Elk Grove 911 dispatchers reveal, companies the size of Apple can bring some very unexpected side effects to the places they decide to locate.
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