An Apple facility that repairs iPhones in California called 9-1-1 over 2,000 times in 4 months -- and nobody knows how to stop it (AAPL)

  • 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.

RELATED: Cost of Apple products through the years

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Cost of Apple products through the years

Apple II (1977)

Cost Then: $1,298
Cost Now: $5,333

Compared to 1976's Apple I, the Apple II was a revelation. While the first Apple lacked a monitor, separate keyboard or casing, the Apple II included the whole package, complete with the introduction of five-color on-screen graphics.

Adjusted for inflation, you could buy a used car for what the Apple II costs, but its price tag had brought the budding company $7.8 million in sales by 1978 — about $30 million in today's money.

Macintosh (1984)

Cost Then: $2,495
Cost Now: $6,036

This is when the world started calling Apples "Macs."

Though dropping six grand on a computer today is cringe-worthy, the original Macintosh was considered the first relatively affordable computer with a graphical interface at the time. Its specs included a whopping 128 KB of RAM, 400 KB of storage, a floppy disk drive and a 9-inch monochrome display.

LaserWriter (1985)

Cost Then: $6,995
Cost Now: $16,207

Apple no longer makes printers, but the LaserWriter was a huge initiative at the time. Its professional print quality aimed for the business market, and it was the first network-capable printer.

It also introduced the world to Adobe Systems, which provided the PostScript programming language that powered the machine. If the original price looked scary, it was, so Apple dropped it to $5,000 by fall 1986.

Newton (1993)

Cost Then: $700
Cost Now: $1,192

Developed while legendary Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs was away from the company, and famously derided by him, the tablet-like touchscreen Newton paved the way for the success of the PDA, and later, the iPad. This small, hand-held product didn't catch on at the time, but it played a role in inspiring today's "all-in-one" device design, and even featured ahead-of-its-time handwriting recognition capabilities.

Power Macintosh (1994)

Cost Then: $2,600
Cost Now: $4,282

The closest modern equivalent of the Power Mac, the Mac Pro, starts at $2,999. Of course, its specs are just a little different.

While the original Power Macintosh — which was sold as the Macintosh Performa 6110CD for home use — sported a 60 MHz PowerPC 601 processor, the Pro rocks a 3.5GHz, 6-core Intel Xeon E5 processor and its 8 MB of RAM are dwarfed by the Mac Pro's 16 GB of RAM.

iMac G3 (1998)

Cost Then: $1,299
Cost Now: $1,967

The introduction of the iMac in 1998 marked the first time Apple used its much-imitated "i" branding. At the time, the "i" in "iMac" stood for "internet," as the all-in-one desktop computer featured a built-in modem, which was uncommon when it launched. The first model came in a blue-green hue, called "bondi blue and ice" by Apple, but it later was available in a rainbow of colors. It marked the first major Apple work by iconic designer Jony Ive.

The iMac line looks a lot different — and less colorful — today, but it's still kicking, with 21.5-inch models starting at $1,099.

Final Cut Pro (1999)

Cost Then: Starting at $300
Cost Now: $450

With so much focus on slick hardware, it's easy to overlook the fact that Apple is a software company, too — unless you're a filmmaker who just dropped $300 on Final Cut Pro, that is.

The pitch remains the same today as it was in 1999: For one price, you get editing, compositing and effects in one professional software package. Apple positioned Final Cut as a "post-production studio in a box," though the philosophy changed a bit as numerous software expansions continued to add features.

AirPort (1999)

Cost Then: $299
Cost Now: $442

AirPort started with multiple offerings, and the tradition continues. Introduced as a wireless networking solution for 802.11b connections, the AirPort Base Station looked like a tiny UFO, but you always could opt for an AirPort card to add wireless functionality to your Mac.

Today, you can get AirPort models spanning from the Express to the 3TB Time Capsule, ranging from $99 to $399.

Power Mac G4 Cube (2000)

Cost Then: $1,799
Cost Now: $2,567

The Power Mac G4 Cube's beautiful design couldn't offset the high price tag, which, consequently, led to its marketplace struggles.

By 2001, its entry-level price had been slashed to $1,299. The cube-shaped brains of the box live today in the form of the Mac Mini series, however. Though the Mini doesn't include a monitor, keyboard or speakers like the G4 Cube, it starts at a much more reasonable $499.

iPod (2001)

Cost Then: Starting at $399
Cost Now: Starting at $554

From 2001 to 2011, Apple sold 300 million iPods. Though the idea of a dedicated MP3 player seems outdated today, the at-the-time appeal of carrying 1,000 songs on the original, scroll-wheel-equipped model's 5 GB hard drive cannot be overstated.

The iPod line eventually included a wide variety of models — from the Nano to the Shuffle — but Apple has since consolidated its offerings to just the iPod touch, which retails for $199 or $299, depending on storage size.

MacBook (2006)

Cost Then: $1,099
Cost Now: $1,338

Remember the early 2000s, when all the coolest tech products — from the iPod to the Wii — were glossy white? Yep, the MacBook was, too.

Starting a legacy that still thrives, the original 13-inch MacBook laptop was powered by a 1.83 GHz Intel "Core Duo" processor and featured a 13-inch widescreen display, complete with modern perks, such as a built-in iSight camera, USB ports and Bluetooth compatibility. Nowadays, an entry-level MacBook starts at a fairly comparable $1,299.

iPhone (2007)

Cost Then: Starting at $499
Cost Now: $608

Before you can sell a billion, you've got to start with one. The iPhone might not have been the first all-in-one hand-held device, but its mainstream appeal and standard feature set established the baseline for the modern smartphone. If your current device has WiFi support, Bluetooth, a camera, glass screen, accelerometer and multi-touch, you probably can thank the iPhone.

In 2018, an iPhone 8 with a 4.7-inch display will cost you $699, meaning Apple actually has raised the price in this arena.

MacBook Air (2008)

Cost Then: $1,799
Cost Now: $2,191

Originally touted for its crazy-thin dimensions, the MacBook Air eventually caught up in terms of power and completely replaced the MacBook line from 2012 to 2015. Because Apple has had a full decade to get a better handle on squeezing more power into less space, modern MacBook Air laptops come at a much lower cost — in 2018, a 13-inch MacBook Air can be had for $999.

iPad (2010)

Cost Then: Starting at $499
Cost Now: $568

Microsoft introduced the tablet format in 2000, but it was Apple that finally got the tablet to catch on in 2010. Even Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates acknowledges that Apple "did some things better than I did," noting that Apple nailed it in terms of "timing," "engineering work" and "just the package that was put together."

That slick package ended up being the biggest product launch of 2010 and went on to sell more than 350 million units, across various iPad models.

Today, Apple offers standard 32GB model iPads from $329.

iPhone 6 (2014)

Cost Then: Starting at $549
Cost Now: $569

The iPhone 6 makes the list not necessarily for its feature set, but for its groundbreaking mainstream penetration. Between the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, this model has sold more than 100 million units since its introduction in 2014, making it the best-selling iPhone to date.

Perhaps due to this ubiquity, you still can get a 4.7-inch iPhone 6s, the phone's more advanced update, straight from Apple for $449.

iPhone X (2017)

Cost Then and Now: $999

Buoyed by crazy hype and endless rumors, Apple premiered the iPhone X in 2017, using its curved Super Retina screen and facial recognition features to test the waters of a high-priced, premium smartphone market.

With reports suggesting that Apple aims to halve iPhone X output in the first quarter of 2018 because of weak holiday sales, the gambit might not have paid off. But with a quarterly revenue of $88.3 billion in the fiscal quarter ending on Dec. 30, 2017, the giants from Cupertino, Calif., probably aren't sweating too much.

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It was 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 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. 

RELATED: $5B Apple HQ in Cupertino

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$5B Apple HQ in Cupertino
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$5B Apple HQ in Cupertino

The front doors to Apple Park are four stories tall and made out of glass.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

The entire campus is landscaped with native plants and trees.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

Inside those big atriums are meeting places and cafes for Apple employees to run into each other.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

This is Steve Jobs Theater, a 1000-seat space where the iPhone X was first launched.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

The fountain inside the ring has finally been filled with water.

YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

The campus can look like a golf course from above.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

But Apple has made a lot of effort to keep the campus environmentally friendly, not just visually green. The entire roof is covered with solar panels, for example.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

The campus is off limits to the public. Here are people driving by it.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

On the right is a visitor's center that sells exclusive Apple swag and coffee. It's the only place on campus where visitors are allowed without a pass.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

Scores of fruit trees have been planted inside the ring. Apple's cafes will use fruit from the campus.

Credit: YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

There's also a state-of-the-art gym on the campus and two basketball courts.

YouTube/Duncan Sinfield

The fountain inside the ring is a stunning blue color.

YouTube/Duncan Sinfield
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"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 cause 

Apple distribution centers in Sacramento(Credit: Google Maps)

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 an 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. 

1-17 calls(Credit: Public records)

New packaging

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 

imac(Credit: Apple) 

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. 

 

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