The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

iPhone 14s now can send SOS via satellite. Use it carefully.

Apple has a new emergency feature you hope to never need

Apple rolled out a new feature that lets its latest iPhones connect to low-Earth orbit satellites and relay information to emergency rescue teams. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

You’re on an early winter hike with friends, following an unkempt “moderate” path you found on the AllTrails app. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground, just enough to throw you off, and your group ends up lost. It’s getting late, you aren’t packed for an overnight stay and there’s no cellular reception on anyone’s phones.

If one person in your crew has an iPhone 14, there’s a new way to call for help when off the grid. Starting Tuesday, a feature called Emergency SOS via satellite will allow users in trouble to send their location — plus short, explanatory messages — to emergency responders.

By adding satellite SOS to its newest phones, Apple is taking what was a niche safety feature and offering it to millions of iPhone 14 owners. They can use it to reach emergency services in everything from natural disasters and wilderness adventures to smaller incidents that happen to be far away from cell towers. It has the potential to save lives, but also gives people power that emergency responders hope they use carefully.

“There are people who think, ‘Now I’m connected, now it doesn’t matter where I go, how I go,’ ” says Sheriff Kevin Rambosk of Collier County, FL. “We still want you to have a plan, to let someone know what your plan it, and when you need this, use this.”

How satellite SOS works

Pinging satellites for help is not new. There is a market of dedicated satellite tracking and SOS devices from companies such as Garmin and Spot.

More recently, satellite connectivity has come into vogue for smartphone software providers and wireless carriers. Over the summer, T-Mobile announced a partnership with SpaceX that would see the latter’s next-generation Starlink satellites act as orbiting cell towers, allowing stranded customers to fire off emergency texts when needed. And days before Apple unveiled its satellite-friendly iPhones, Google senior vice president Hiroshi Lockheimer also confirmed that a future version of Android would support similar features.

Is it time to upgrade your iPhone?

Apple’s new service is made possible by dozens of satellites in low Earth orbit, whizzing around the planet at around 15,000 miles per hour. Apple didn’t actually put them there, though — it instead poured millions into Globalstar, a Louisiana-based communications company that launched its first satellites in the late 1990s.

Use of the service is currently limited to iPhone 14 owners in the United States and Canada, but Apple confirmed that it will go live in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Germany next month.

If you have a compatible iPhone and you attempt to call 911 in an area without WiFi or cellular service, you’ll see an option to send an “Emergency Text via Satellite” appear on-screen. Tap that, and the phone will ask you questions such as “What’s the emergency?” and “Is anyone injured?”

Your answers — along with your precise location and your medical ID, if you’ve added one — are plucked from the ether by a Globalstar satellite and relayed to a ground station. If the appropriate emergency responders are equipped to receive calls for help via text message, they’ll be alerted directly. But if they aren’t, Apple routes the calls to third-party relay centers that include Apple employees. They collect your responses — and sometimes ask clarifying questions — and liaise with emergency services on your behalf.

For this process to work, you need a clear, unobstructed view of the sky, or as close to it as you can get (clouds are okay). Because those satellites are flying around at such high speeds, you will also occasionally need to point the iPhone at different parts of the sky to send or receive those emergency messages. The phone will tell you which way to position it. Rather than the seconds it usually takes to conduct a conversation via text message, messages sent via satellite can take many minutes to reach their destination.

In other words, keep your responses short and be patient.

Don’t rely on Apple to save you

Behind the scenes of a satellite SOS exchange is a sprawling, sometimes outdated, network of private relay centers, public 911 hubs and a patchwork of government agencies and rescue teams. The type of team sent to help you could depend on whose jurisdiction you happen to be in and how well they are funded.

Every year in the United States, there are thousands of search and rescue operations. These teams can include everything from specialized water rescues in conjunction with the United States Coast Guard to mountain rescues with experienced volunteer climbers. Costs of a search and rescue are covered in most states, but not always. Medical rescues can involve private helicopters that cost thousands of dollars, and some states such as New Hampshire can bill the person rescued if they find them negligent.

A satellite-connected iPhone 14, rugged Apple Watch and AirPods

Some experts worry that expanding access, without proper education, could increase the number of calls to an already burdened system.

“It’s providing an inflated sense of safety and security because you have this, even a little bit of hubris,” says Chris Boyer, executive director for the National Association for Search and Rescue. “When you’ve got something in your pocket like this, I think people rely on it heavily and get a flawed risk assessment. That overconfidence can end in tragedy.”

Relying on an iPhone has an additional risk: its battery life. A smartphone can, in the best of circumstances, stay charged for a day, while dedicated SOS devices are designed to stay charged days longer.

Boyer has worked in search and rescue operations, including being on teams in the field, since 1996. He applauds Apple adding the feature but thinks consumer education will be key to making sure it’s making people safer. He also worries that suddenly expanding access could lead to an uptick in unnecessary calls. “Search and rescue is already pretty overwhelmed,” he says.

The tech industry is selling safety

“This is one of those features you’re never going to think about or use until the one moment you need it.” said Michael Martin, CEO of RapidSOS, which connects Apple’s SOS data to nearby 911 centers.

RapidSOS’s technology acts as a sort of translator for these types of private emergency calls and the public 911 hubs that answer them. It’s been a long slog to update 911 infrastructure in the United States, and while advances have been made in recent years, many dispatch centers still cannot receive text messages directly from people in distress. Meanwhile, companies like Uber, SimpliSafe and Google are adding built-in buttons for reporting emergencies or using sensors and relying on RapidSOS.

Collier County’s Sheriff Rambosk says private companies such as Apple investing in emergency technology can help advance public infrastructure. He thinks Apple’s SOS feature could help his own department get more calls from people lost in the Everglades or stranded after hurricanes.

Apple is selling a promise of safety. It’s also the latest tech company to tap into fear to market a product. Google’s Nest, Amazon’s Ring and other home security cameras have exploded in popularity, while neighbors use apps such as Nextdoor and Neighbors to trade information about the latest crimes or “suspicious” people. Citizen, a crowdsourced app for monitoring nearby crime and emergencies, has a $20 a month service called Protect that includes immediate access to an agent. (The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)

Emergency SOS joins a line of Apple safety features that include the Apple Watch’s fall detection and the iPhone 14’s Crash Detection, which can tell when you’ve been in a car accident.

Satellite SOS could be more than another selling point for iPhones in the future. The chances of an iPhone user actually needing satellite SOS may be slim, but Apple hasn’t publicly ruled out the idea of charging customers for that peace of mind. The company says the feature will be free for the first two years, and has not said what — or if — it could cost after that.

Whether or not Apple charges, the service could cost users. Garmin’s InReach devices — satellite-equipped communication gadgets that can hold a charge for days, even up to a month — start at $14.95 a month for service. The company also offers insurance for $40 a year, to cover up to $100,000 in rescue costs.

“I’ve seen search and rescue helicopter invoices for $40,000, for fuel, rotary miles, crew, specialized equipment,” said Kevin Stamps, a senior manager at Garmin Response. “It varies instant to instant.”

How to try Apple’s satellite SOS feature

Here’s a way to try the satellite SOS feature without actually summoning emergency responders. For now, the feature can only be used by people in the United States and Canada with an iPhone 14 or 14 Pro model running the iOS 16.1 software.

  • Open the Settings app.
  • Find the Emergency SOS option, then tap it.
  • Scroll down and select the “Demo mode” option.

Help Desk: Making tech work for you

Help Desk is a destination built for readers looking to better understand and take control of the technology used in everyday life.

Take control: Sign up for The Tech Friend newsletter to get straight talk and advice on how to make your tech a force for good.

Tech tips to make your life easier: 10 tips and tricks to customize iOS 16 | 5 tips to make your gadget batteries last longer | How to get back control of a hacked social media account | How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation online

Data and Privacy: A guide to every privacy setting you should change now. We have gone through the settings for the most popular (and problematic) services to give you recommendations. Google | Amazon | Facebook | Venmo | Apple | Android

Ask a question: Send the Help Desk your personal technology questions.