Emergency SOS on Apple iOS 11: Safety Features and Security Concerns

Apple recently unveiled its newly updated operating system - iOS 11 - for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The operating system offers a variety of new tools that will impact the lives of survivors of domestic violence. This two-part blog series features two of the new tools. Recently we released a blog about the screen recording feature. Today, we are featuring the Emergency SOS calling feature.

The new Emergency SOS feature in iOS 11 allows iPhone users to call emergency services, with the added options to alert trusted contacts via text message that the emergency call was placed, and to send those contacts updates on the user’s current location. You can do all of these things without unlocking the phone. As with all technology, it’s important to look closely at both the benefits and how the new feature  may impact a safety planning process. If you’re at risk of abuse from somebody known to you, it’s very important to know that the Emergency SOS button may be a part of a safety plan, but it is not a substitute for a safety plan. In this blog, we’ll take you step-by-step through the process of setting up this feature and offer key safety considerations for survivors who are interested in using it.

The Emergency SOS feature is not a new feature for smartphones, but this is the first time a tool like this has been available as a part of the iPhone's operating system. The Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7, and other Android-based devices have had this feature built into the operating system for several years. Similar tools that allow a user to quickly contact trusted contacts and emergency services have also been available as third-party apps in the Apple App and Google Play Stores. For a review of personal safety apps, please take a look at Safety Apps: Getting Help During an Emergency page of our App Safety Center.


If you want to activate or test the Emergency SOS feature, you can do so by going into the Settings app of your device. Once there, scroll down until you see the Emergency SOS tab, which currently looks like the image below. Clicking on the Emergency SOS tab will take you to the set-up page. Information will appear that will assist you in setting up the feature.

Activating emergency sos mode in ios 11

Triggering Emergency SOS

The buttons you press to trigger emergency SOS depends on which phone you have.

  • For iPhones 7, 7+, and older, press the button on the right side of the device rapidly 5 times to activate Emergency SOS.
  • For iPhone 8, 8+, and X, press and hold the button on the right side while at the same time pressing and holding one of the two volume buttons.

Set Up Options

There are two modes for Emergency SOS. For the sake of this blog, we will call them the default mode and the auto-call mode.

Default Mode: If you activate Emergency SOS without making any changes, the feature will be in default mode.  After the Emergency SOS feature has been triggered in default mode, a screen will appear with several different buttons that the user can slide to call Emergency SOS, access Medical ID, power off the device, or cancel the triggered feature (in case it was accidentally triggered). This is what you will see on the device:


Key consideration: The default mode is helpful for avoiding accidental calls to emergency services, but it also means you will have to look at the phone to actually place the call, which may raise the suspicions of the abusive person.  

Auto Call Mode: Alternatively, auto-call mode can be turned on so that once the Emergency SOS feature has been triggered, a call will automatically be placed. The call will not be placed for 3 seconds, which gives the user an opportunity to cancel the call.

Key consideration: It's important to note that by default, auto-call mode will sound a loud, siren-like alarm when Emergency SOS is triggered - however the sound feature can be turned off. Once the auto-call mode is triggered, the alarm sounds and a short, 3-second countdown appears on the screen period where the 911 call can be canceled. After the 3 seconds have passed, the call will be placed. This countdown was designed to give the user a chance to cancel the call if it was triggered accidentally, and to draw the attention of anyone in the area. While sounding an alert can be helpful for avoiding accidental 911 calls or for drawing public attention during incidents of violence, it will also alert an abusive person that it’s been triggered, giving them time to grab the phone from the victim and possibly cancel the call. Particularly in cases of domestic violence, alerting the abusive person may escalate violence. Thankfully, Apple offers a way to disable the warning sound. This can be done by scrolling down to the bottom of the Emergency SOS settings page and toggling off the Countdown Sound button (see images below).


 Emergency Contact Notification & Location Sharing

Within the Emergency SOS settings, you also have the option of selecting multiple emergency contacts to receive notice of the emergency. These contacts will be taken from contacts that you set up in the Medical ID feature on iOS. Once emergency contacts are selected, if you activate the Emergency SOS feature and a call to 911 is placed, each of these contacts will receive a text message notifying them that you have contacted emergency services and providing them with your current location. There is approximately a ten second time period where you can cancel the text message notification before it is sent. Additionally, if your location services are turned off, the iPhone will temporarily turn them on. If your location changes after the initial text message is sent, your contacts will receive ongoing SOS location updates as you move around. Your phone will have a blue alert at the top of the screen that alerts you to the fact that your location is being shared. You will also receive a reminder on your phone after 10 minutes have passed that lets you know that your emergency contacts are still receiving emergency location updates. You can stop sharing the updates at any time, and will be reminded every 4 hours that they are still sending updates. You will no longer be reminded after 24 hours have passed.

Your contacts will receive a text message similar to the image below.


Key Considerations: If the abusive partner gets your phone as the call is in process and hangs it up, they may be able to cancel the emergency contact notification system before it engages. Additionally, you can only assign emergency contacts that are a part of your contact list. This can be a problem if you want to use a number that you need to keep discreet and separate from your contact list. One possible work around would be to assign the number under a fake name that you aren’t worried about your partner seeing – then you would just need to make sure to remember who the number actually calls. There may be a way to hide contacts through iCloud and the default contacts app, however hiding is not likely to be of much assistance because you will still have to have the individual emergency contacts visible within the Medical ID feature in order to use them for Emergency SOS. If your contact does not have good service at the time of the message they may not receive the exact location or location data at the same time that it is sent. This means it's important to consider someone's availability and phone reception when deciding if you want to include them as an emergency contact. 

 Overall, as with any technology, there are benefits and risks for safety and privacy. If this feature is something you think may increase your safety, give you options for communicating emergency needs quickly, or simply give you peace of mind, learn as much as you can and test it out so you’re comfortable with relying on it in the case of an emergency.

 Have questions about this or how other technologies impact victims of domestic violence? Reach out to us!

This project was supported by Grant No. 2016-TA-AX-K069 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this program are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.

Need to Call 911? There’s an App For That!

In the past year, the app market has been flooded with a plethora of 911 alternative or enhancement apps. Some of the apps promise that they will connect you to 911 faster and more accurately. Other apps say they will connect you to 911 and provide emergency dispatchers with personal information about you, so you don’t have to. One app promises to collect evidence by recording the crime being perpetrated against you and connecting you to a “safety officer.” (Note: As far as we could tell from the app or its website, the safety officer has no connections to a legitimate law enforcement agency.)

Many of these app developers are asking domestic violence and sexual violence programs to partner with them and are encouraging programs to have survivors download the app.  While we’ll have reviews of some of these apps available soon in our App Safety Center, here are some things to think about when considering whether these apps are right for you.

What These Apps Are Trying To Fix

Currently, the emergency 911 system in the United States is complex. How your call gets routed to 911 depends on whether you’re calling from a landline or a cellphone. Generally, a landline number is connected to the house that number is registered, making it fairly easy for emergency responders to locate you. Calls from cellphones don’t have a set location. Instead, the 911 system uses the cell towers your phone is connecting from to identify your location. Your location can be fairly accurate or not very accurate at all, depending on how far you are from cell towers or how well your phone is communicating with the towers. This is especially problematic for callers from rural areas.

Another problem with the current 911 system is that if someone can’t speak, she or he can't explain what is happening when calling 911, a system that generally requires the caller to explain to the emergency dispatcher what is going on. Some of the apps try to overcome these limitations.

Some Serious Concerns

Despite how helpful these apps might seem, there are some serious issues to consider before you decide if it is the right app for you.

How Connected Are They to the Real 911 System?

These apps are not part of the traditional 911 system. They are a third party that promises to connect you to 911. When you use the app, it connects to you a call center, where an operator asks you questions or interacts with you via the app. After that, it routes you to the nearest 911 dispatch center where you (or the app call center) speak to an actual emergency dispatcher, who then has the authority to send emergency responders. If you were unable to speak or communicate or if you hung up, the app service may call you back and, depending on their policy, may inform your local 911 emergency dispatch center that you called. However that is not very different from how 911 currently works.

When in an emergency, there should be as few delays as possible between your call and the emergency responder. It is really important to consider all your options in contacting 911 so that you get the quickest and most efficient response.

Do They Really Work?

These apps are very new. They have not been tested to see how many times they are successful in connecting callers to emergency dispatch centers compared to their rates of failure. If you live in an area where, after calling 911, emergency responders were unable to locate you or unable to communicate with you, then these apps might be an option. However, if calling 911 currently works just fine for you, then consider if you need another app that does what you can currently do by dialing 911 from your phone.

If you do choose to use one of these apps, test it. Make sure that it works the way you want it to. Don’t wait until you’re in an emergency to realize that it doesn’t work. In our tests of some of these apps, we found that when we used the texting option, although we received messages from the app saying “help is on the way” and that 911 would be contacting us soon, no calls or assistance came. We suspected that this might be the case, since most 911 call centers are not equipped to respond to text messages so we knew that this was unlikely to work.

But Don’t These Apps Have More Features than the Current 911 System?

Some of these apps have additional features that you may find useful and helpful to you. If you test it, and it works the way it should, and you want an app that offers these features, then go ahead and use it. However, there are a few things to consider about some of these features.

A lot of these apps promise to determine your location better and more accurately than the current 911 system. While this may be true in some circumstances, it may not be true a hundred percent of the time. Your cellphone location is accessible in a variety of ways. If your phone is dead or you are in an area with very poor or no signal, there is no guarantee that these apps will do a better job at locating you.

One of the selling points for some of the apps is that if you share personal information about yourself (physical identifiers, medical conditions, family members, number of pets, etc.), they will provide that information to emergency dispatchers, making it easier for emergency responders to know what to do. Keep in mind, however, that emergency dispatchers and emergency responders are trained to respond to emergencies with as little or as much information as they are given. It really depends on the emergency you are in whether this additional information would be truly helpful. Also keep in mind of what this third party does with the personal information you share. Read their privacy policy and know how else they share or sell your personal information. They should also have robust security to protect your data and inform you if they have a data breach.

A final concern is how “evidence” from these apps (which can be in the form of recorded audio or video) will hold up in court. Generally, 911 calls are used as evidence in criminal cases, but if you are using an app where your first emergency contact was with a third-party company, how that interaction will submitted in court is unknown. Talk to local authorities about how this type of evidence could be used. Ask the app service how accessible the “evidence” will be. Some companies may release the evidence only with consent from you, and some companies may release it to anyone with a proper legal order, which might include the abusive person and his or her attorney.

Should I Download a 911 Alternative or Enhancement App?

Many of these apps are being marketed specifically to domestic violence and sexual assault victims because they know that survivors’ ability to connect with 911 is critical. If you want the ability to make a silent call to 911, or want a service that will communicate to someone your location, name, and any other personal information you choose to share, one of these apps may give you peace of mind. However, don’t trust your safety to an app without learning all that you can about it and testing it.

Additional points to keep in mind:

  • It might be faster to call 911 from your phone. Most smartphones have an emergency feature that allows you to call 911 with a swipe and a tap, even if your phone is locked. If the app requires you to unlock your phone, find the app, open it, and then do whatever is needed to send the emergency call (tapping a button 3 times, or push a button and then confirm or cancel the call 3-5 seconds later), it might be faster to just dial 9-1-1 during a serious emergency.
  • These apps will not prevent crimes from happening. Any app that claims or implies that is lying. (One app, for example, claims that using their app is “like having an officer in your back pocket.”)
  • Assess whether you have a situation in which using these apps will enhance your experience when calling 911. For example, you may live in an area where emergency responder has had a difficult time locating where you are, but after testing one of these apps, it does a better job.
  • If the app contacts other people (in addition to emergency dispatch centers) and shares with them that you are in an emergency, talk to the people you chose for the app service to contact and let them know that they may be contacted and what they should do.
  • Have a backup plan and trust your instincts. Don’t rely entirely on these apps. If you are in an emergency and something doesn’t feel right, trust your instinct and do what is right for you.