Early in the morning hours of Thursday, December 1, a man driving a snowmobile across the forty-five miles between Noorvik and Kotzebue, Alaska, became stranded. It’s not clear what happened, but it was dark (there are just three and a half hours of daylight there now) and cold (22 degrees) and he pulled out his iPhone 14 and activated Apple’s Emergency SOS system. This new satellite service, which just came online a few weeks ago, connects iPhone 14s with emergency workers even when there’s no cellular phone signal.
Staffers at the Apple Emergency Response Center got in touch with the Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue Coordinator and provided the man’s GPS coordinates; four volunteers went out, found the snow machiner, and brought him to Kotzebue. It was a happy ending, and Alaska state troopers were “impressed with the accuracy and completeness of information included in the initial alert,” according to MacRumors.
When Apple announced the SOS service in September, many in the mainstream media accused the company of fear-mongering in service of selling more phones (it’s only available on iPhone 14 models), but those who spend much of their lives outdoors in remote places know what a game changer this is. Until now, if you wanted to have communication from the backcountry to the front country, you needed either a sat phone or a dedicated satellite messenger like the Garmin inReach. Neither are cheap, and both require service costs or fees. Emergency SOS, however, puts the possibility of rescue in the hands of everyone with an iPhone 14 and after the cost of the phone it’s free (for at least the first two years—Apple hasn’t said what happens after that).
A week after the service was activated, I tested it in a remote part of northern San Diego County, on the eastern border of the Marines’ Camp Pendleton and up against the southern end of the Santa Ana Mountains. I traveled miles of dirt roads, didn’t see another soul, and then scrambled to the top of Margarita Peak. The phone registered zero bars and I put the service in demo mode. This turns off the cellular receiver, connects with a satellite, and walks you through the process of communicating as if it were a real emergency.
With a clear view of the sky, it took about thirty seconds until I received confirmation that the phone was connected to a satellite; a prompt told me to change the device’s direction to get a stronger signal. Once this was accomplished, I received a demo text that said:
This is a sample conversation with emergency services. Type whatever you want, and you’ll receive example responses. Dispatchers will often ask you to describe your location. Be brief, but descriptive. For example: “East Canyon Highway, near mile marker43.”
What is your location?
I provided my location and told the demo bot that my breakdown had been caused by a giant chupacabra (is there any other kind?). The bot said, “Are there any gas or fluid leaks?” while reminding me this was a sample message. Shortly after, the demo ended.
It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is. There have been more than 10,000 successful rescues since 2011 thanks to the inReach, and those were of people who were privileged enough to own and carry a satellite messenger (or be near someone who did). What about all those people who don’t know about inReaches or don’t have the money for them? Who are eager outdoor folks who get in over their heads? My closest national park is Joshua Tree, where there’s zero cell signal, and every year people die because they’ve underestimated the heat or got lost or fell in the boulders. We don’t know exactly what happened to Bill Ewasko in JT back in 2010, but Apple’s service is designed precisely for scenarios like his: lost, hurt, no signal, needs help.
Now, the functions of the SOS service are limited. You can text for help. You can send your location to friends or family through Apple’s Find My app. What you can’t do is send non-emergency texts, as you can with inReach. That probably doesn’t matter for most people, but the vast majority of my inReach texts are me letting my wife and kids know where I am and that I’m okay. I’d like to give up the $150 or so I spend each year on the inReach service, but I’m not sure I want to give up that ready connectivity.
The inReach also provides communication for non-emergency needs. A dead fuel pump could strand you, but it’s not life-threatening—inReach lets you text friends or family to call a mechanic or tow truck (or bring a new pump). It’s also light, sturdy, and will run for a month without recharging. On the other hand, it costs $300 to $400 for a device plus the annual service. Emergency SOS is free and I almost always have my phone.
The ability to communicate anywhere satellites can reach opens up all kinds of considerations around what you want from a backcountry experience, the need for self reliance, etc., and the ubiquity of iPhones and this new service will cast them in even higher relief. Much as I love solitude and independence and no technology, I love not being dead even more, and I’m thankful Emergency SOS gives us one more way to continue not being dead.