iPhone emergency SOS via satellite feature helps save hikers trapped in Arthurs Pass

  • 08/09/2023

An emergency feature on the latest iPhone model has been used during a rescue for the first known time in Aotearoa.

Two hikers used the iPhone 14's Emergency SOS via satellite feature for help after getting trapped on a riverbank at Arthurs Pass, in Waitaha Canterbury, near the Sudden Valley Stream on Wednesday.

The pair were unable to cross the river safely due to rapidly rising waters amid torrential rain.

GCH Aviation and Canterbury West Coast Air Rescue Trust sent a helicopter to search for the pair and got them back to safety quickly and without issue thanks to the accuracy of the iPhone's location feature.

"Yesterday we were able to respond to some hikers stranded in a river because they had this technology with them," said the Air Rescue Trust on social media.

"It's pretty new technology so Personal Locator Beacons are still recommended on your travels but if you have a new phone check out this feature."

The feature, exclusive to iPhone 14 devices, sends a user's messages and location to emergency services via a satellite when there is no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage.

Caroline Blanchfield of GCH Aviation told Newshub it was the first time the iPhone emergency feature had been used from a location in Aotearoa.

"The SOS text sends a ping to the US, and they send a ping back to New Zealand, usually to police, who will then activate a search," she said.

But Blanchfield also warned people not to rely on the iPhone feature alone.

"It is a great additional tool but not a replacement," she said.

"You should always carry one [a personal locator beacon] in the wilderness. You need a piece of kit to be 100 percent safe."

The Sudden Valley Stream in Waitaha, Te Waipounamu.
The Sudden Valley Stream in Waitaha, Te Waipounamu. Photo credit: Canterbury West Coast Air Rescue.

Blanchfield said the hikers underestimated how quickly rivers can rise.

"They couldn't cross it so they sent out the ping."

Apple introduced the Emergency SOS feature to Aotearoa in May after having been credited with saving lives in other countries that got it earlier.

In New Zealand, if an iPhone 14 user tries to call 111 in an area without cellular or Wi-Fi coverage, the phone will prompt them to launch the SOS satellite tool. Users then fill out a few short questions that are passed on to emergency services.

It can also be automatically activated in areas without coverage if the phone detects the user has been in a serious motor accident.

Both One and 2degrees have announced plans for satellite-assisted cellular networks that should mean coverage across 100 percent of the motu in the coming years, which would likely reduce the need for sending emergency communications via satellite.