What if you could save a life in three words? Well, there’s an app for that
What3words has made it possible to locate any place on earth in just three words, and PSAPs are taking notice
When nine-month-old Annie Bell stopped breathing earlier this year, suffering from what appeared to be a seizure, her mom, Katie, did what any mother would do: She called 9-1-1.
But, as WSBT 22 reported, dispatchers couldn’t immediately send the help both mom and daughter needed because they couldn’t find their location.
Over the next three minutes, as Annie lay on the ground with “glazed over” eyes, dispatchers struggled to pinpoint the location of the Bell’s new home – so new, in fact, that it hadn’t yet been added to the maps available to emergency services.
It ultimately took the help of a neighbor and the addresses of nearby businesses to direct responders to the right location; they arrived just over 10 minutes later.
Annie, fortunately, made it through the ordeal safely, but the outcome could have been much worse.
A better way to locate
“Every month, people all around the world struggle to communicate their location to emergency services,” said Chris Sheldrick, co-founder and CEO of what3words, an app that is revolutionizing the way more than 600 PSAPs across 28 states are finding callers experiencing emergencies.
And that’s just in the United States; the technology is being used by 85% of UK emergency services and is also gaining traction in Canada and around the world.
Because 80% or more of 9-1-1 calls placed in the U.S. today are from mobile devices, quickly locating a caller’s precise spot can be a tall order, particularly when they’re in areas without specific addresses, like parks or coastlines. While most emergency communications centers can go through wireless carriers to locate callers through a combination of network triangulation and trilateration, the accuracy varies; it can also eat up valuable time.
And as in Katie Bell’s case, even addresses aren’t always foolproof.
“Today people nearly always have their phone on them,” said Sheldrick. “We need to use the tools at our disposal to improve public services and potentially save lives.”
How does what3words app work?
What3words has broken up the world into 10-foot-square blocks, each of which has been assigned a unique combination of three words. For example, the what3words address for a square directly in front of the entrance to the Statue of Liberty is palm.shut.long.
What that means is that virtually everyone with a smartphone in hand can not only find their exact location on the globe with the touch of a button, but they can also communicate it to others with just three words.
Anyone can then use the app to navigate to that hyperspecific location, even if the phone is offline.
“We came up with a way to simplify GPS coordinates,” Sheldrick said. The idea for the technology originated with his own difficulties in directing crews to music venues in a former career; in one instance, the band mistyped the coordinates and ended up at the wrong wedding.
“Street addresses [also] weren’t accurate or reliable enough,” he said.
How dispatchers are using what3words for emergency response
As a recent adopter of the technology, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office in Shalimar, Florida, couldn’t be more pleased with the results thus far.
“I’m nothing short of excited to see what3Words gaining traction within telecommunications and the 9-1-1 space,” Communications Assistant Director Audrey Adams shared via email.
Because their emergency communication center uses the data platform RapidSOS to augment its response capabilities, dispatchers receive each caller’s what3words address in most cases. That’s thanks to a partnership announced earlier this year that has integrated the app’s functionality into the platform, making it accessible to more than 4,800 PSAPs across the U.S.
And even in the less likely scenario that the information transfer isn’t automatic – when RapidSOS isn’t able to retrieve a good pinpoint on the map, for example – dispatchers can ask for the what3words address and then input that directly into their system.
That’s why the sheriff’s office is encouraging as many people as possible to download the app as a good backup. Sheldrick has noted that using the app directly is the best method in a situation where the caller has little or no service.
RapidSOS users who want to start using the technology only need to have the latest version of Chrome. “Other than [that],” said Adams, “there were no technical requirements for installation.”
“Staff training was very simple. We informed our staff prior to the day we went live with it and provided them exceptionally easy to read product literature from what3words and RapidSOS. We conducted test calls with all personnel so they could visually see it in action and see how simplistic and beneficial it was to use.”
Within the first few weeks of the May 2021 launch, the integration had already proven its value – not only were dispatchers successfully able to locate overturned kayakers on a nearby river, but they were also able to reach a woman, who was unable to speak due to a medical emergency, in a multistory hotel.
PSAPs don’t have to use RapidSOS, however, to experience the app’s many benefits. What3words has also partnered with several CAD vendors, including RapidDeploy, Southern Software, Sun Ridge Systems RIMS, Hexagon OnCall, Mark43, Versaterm, Enterpol and Shotover Systems.
Interested agencies without pre-integrated systems can build the app into their CAD systems via the free what3words API.
The Los Angeles Fire Department’s dispatch center, which recently completed such an integration, is likewise enthusiastic about its new location capabilities.
“I think of it as just one of many tools in our toolbox,” LAFD Chief Information Officer Scott Porter told GovTech. “It’s not a replacement for traditional addresses, but it certainly is an enhancement to those locations that are difficult to describe with a traditional address.”
In addition to using the app via RapidSOS integration, which allows dispatchers to simply click on a caller’s location on a map (again, if available) to retrieve the what3words address, LAFD’s newest integration adds an extra level of security. If location data cannot automatically populate, dispatchers can send an SMS text message with a link to the caller’s phone; once clicked, the link will reveal the caller’s three-word location, which can then be verbally relayed over the phone.
This method was successfully used this past April when a couple hiking with their eight-month-old baby slipped into a ravine.
No system is perfect
As with any technology rapidly impacting a given space, what3words hasn’t been immune to criticism.
A security consultant told the BBC in April that he had discovered “a very significant number” of similarly sounding words within close proximity, which could mean emergency services personnel are inadvertently sent to the wrong address when someone along the communication chain misspeaks or misspells a word.
But, the company says, this scrutiny is not just to be expected but is rightly deserved, particularly when so many emergency responders are using the technology.
And, they reassured users, similarly labeled squares in close enough proximity to obstruct first responders are exceedingly rare.
What3words also employs an error prevention feature called Autosuggest, which "actively intercepts possible errors or confusions and highlights other possibilities to the user, helping to identify what might need to be checked."
"We launched the system with full understanding that whilst we had made trade-offs in our shuffling algorithm,” the company said, “it provided a huge communication benefit over the commonly-used location system alternatives. We have good feedback from our partners and users supporting this view.”