Documents reviewed by Business Insider show how city officials have struggled to stop a rash of false emergency calls originating from an Apple facility.
- A string of false 911 calls from an Apple repair facility has plagued a small city near Sacramento for months.
- The calls appear to originate from iPhones being repaired, and at one point tied up all six emergency lines for the city of Elk Grove, California.
- The city has worked with Apple to resolve the problem, but has been frustrated by Apple’s inability to stop the phones from calling its emergency lines.
A small city near Sacramento has been dealing with a never-ending string of false emergency calls from an Apple repair facility in town.
Between October 20, 2017 and February 23, 2018, 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 per day.
At one point in January, the calls from the Apple factory were so frequent that they tied up every single one of Elk Grove’s six 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 real 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 dialing 911. But for city officials trying to stop the nuisance and to ensure that a critical emergency resource was not overburdened, fixing the problem has not been easy.
Despite crediting Apple for being responsive to their pleas for help, Elk Grove officials have been frustrated by the company’s inability to fix the problem. At one point, officials even discussed the possibility of getting the state government involved and sending police to the factory.
The Apple facility is a point of pride in the city of 170,000, providing the kinds of manufacturing jobs that many American towns are clamoring for. But the city’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 have background noise on the line, came to light one month ago, when a local CBS affiliate reported on the influx of 911 calls. Despite subsequent international attention, the problem is ongoing one month later, but has significantly decreased, Jason Jimenez, Elk Grove’s public information officer, told Business Insider.
“The calls have not stopped but have significantly decreased. We are continuing to work with Apple in hopes of resolving the issue,” Jimenez said in a statement on Monday. Jimenez previously said in February that “at this point, public safety is not in danger” from the affair.
“We’re aware of 9-1-1 calls originating from our Elk Grove repair and refurbishment facility. We take this seriously and we are working closely with local law enforcement to investigate the cause to ensure this doesn’t continue,” an Apple representative told Business Insider on Tuesday.
The sudden influx of 911 calls last fall led to a minor crisis at Elk Grove police department. They knew the calls came from Apple — but one problem was that given Apple’s secrecy, nobody knew where the calls were coming from in the facilities. Not even Apple.
In a email sent to Elk Grove dispatchers on February 21, an Elk Grove manager said that she had weekly conference calls with Apple Global Security, and had narrowed it down to an issue with “iPhone 8, 8 Plus, X and the Apple Watch.”
The manager wrote that Apple said that simply turning off emergency calls for an unactivated phone was not an option, because of FCC regulations. The calls are described as “NSI” (non-service initialized) calls in the Elk Grove reports, because they originate from devices that haven’t yet been activated.
While the calls were typically short, and dispatchers were able to 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 put the community at risk.
California’s office of emergency services’ 9-1-1 manager “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 “trunks” were occupied at one time, according to a report from the 9-1-1 service provider. That would have meant that anyone trying to call 911 at that particular time might have received a busy signal.
What exactly has been causing the phones under repair to make the ghost calls continues to be an enigma, though some kind of problem with the packaging that might cause buttons on the phones to be pressed is the main suspect.
“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,” the Elk Grove dispatch manager wrote.
“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 December 28 report gives some more detail about what Apple thought the problem may be.
Debbie Berger, 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. 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 9-1-1,” Elk Grove dispatch supervisor Jamie Hudson wrote. Apple told him that they were manufacturing new storage trays, he wrote.
However, the trays didn’t help, according to the internal report, and the police department was frustrated that the packaging redesign didn’t work. With the help of Elk Grove’s city manager, they were able to get in touch with Mike Foulkes, Apple’s government liaison, at the end of January, months after the calls had started.
Apple eventually agreed to a process with the Elk Grove PD where a stray 911 call would be transferred back to Apple so that they could identify the problem inside its facility. This process quickly confirmed one 911 call came from an iPhone 8 Plus on the “north wall iPhone repair line” in February, and was caused by “the side buttons being held together while phones were placed next to each other.”
Still, no one has yet been able to pinpoint the reason for the ghost calls in the records Business Insider reviewed.
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 from the cities it settles in; local governments are often more concerned with making sure the city is properly functioning.
Apple’s Elk Grove warehouse is one of Apple’s older satellite facilities. It’s been there since 1991, and used to be a manufacturing facility for Macs — including the iconic candy-colored iMac — before Apple outsourced its manufacturing to Asia.
In 2015, though, it started growing rapidly once again, and added hundreds of workers who officially worked for Pegatron Technology Services fixing iPhones, according to the Mercury News. Now the facility services 30,000 phones per day, according to the Elk Grove records.
Apple in recent months has made a big effort to highlight the jobs it creates in the United States. Apple announced last year plans to build a new campus and hire 20,000 additional employees. The actual location of the facility hasn’t been announced yet.
No matter where Apple’s new campus ends up being located, those city officials should hope that Apple CEO Tim Cook doesn’t forget about them after the ribbon is cut. As revealed by the Elk Grove 911 dispatchers, companies the size of Apple can have some very unexpected side effects on the towns they decide to locate in.