British Columbia

New geolocator app praised by dispatcher, but search and rescue crew says 911 is 'only option'

What3Words is a free app that allows first responders to pinpoint the user's exact location

Posted: October 10, 2021
Last Updated: October 13, 2021

What3Words divides the world into three-metre squares and assigns each with a unique combination of three random words, which allows first responders to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC Sudbury)

One North Vancouver RCMP emergency dispatcher is encouraging all British Columbians, especially those who venture into the backcountry, to download geolocation technology called What3Words — though rescue workers stress 911 "is the only option to call for help."

The free app divides the world into three-metre squares and assigns each with a unique combination of three random words, which allows first responders to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency.

North Vancouver RCMP implemented the technology last year. Dispatcher Julie Cohan said they were the first RCMP service in Canada to begin using the app.

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"We did a big roll-out about a year ago because we get inundated with so many calls about lost hikers and skiers, which are often time consuming and time sensitive, especially for the person who is injured,'' Cohan said.

"Before we had What3Words, it would take up to 20 minutes to locate someone because we had to work with the cell companies and there could be up to a 500-metre radius from the general coordinates they could provide.''

What3Words, she said, is a way to streamline the process. As long as the person in need has cell reception, emergency services can pinpoint their location.

"This is something every police agency and emergency service should be using,'' she said. "It's time saving, life saving and allows us to move onto the next 911 call as soon as they come in.''

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Phone 911 before anything else, SAR team says

But not all first responders agree. One manager with Squamish Search and Rescue (SAR) said calling 911 is the only way for people in the backcountry to directly contact teams.

"We need to be dispatched by the 911 system. We don't want people to take time to download extra apps ... we want people to phone 911 so we can be dispatched early and have time to come and help them," said BJ Chute, who's been a manager with the team for nearly 11 years.

He said most, if not all, SAR teams in the province already have the ability to get the GPS co-ordinates they need from a person's phone by sending a simple text.

"Once we send that text message, the GPS coordinates are not only sent to the SAR manager, but they are automatically uploaded into our mapping system and we can see where those people are and track them live without doing any data entry," Chute said in an interview.

"I see some redundancy and some delays [with the app], as well as the possibility for some transcription errors. I'd have to receive information from What3Words, I would have to translate those three words into a GPS coordinate, put it on our map, give that information to our pilot, etcetera etcetera ... that seems to be extra work."

Founder and CEO of What3Words, Chris Sheldrick, said the app can identify a person's exact location even if they don't have cell service, using satellite technology. He said this has proven useful in situations where people are travelling with others in remote locations.

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"What we've found in a lot of cases is one person will be injured and, if someone has the app, the non-injured person can leave the person and, when they have cell reception, tell police exactly where the person is located using the three words provided,'' he said.

The app, which is available in more than 50 languages, is already being used in eight provinces and two territories, and has been implemented in more than 42 dispatch centres. In British Columbia, B.C. Emergency Health Services, who dispatch to all ambulance services in the province, have integrated What3Words into all of their systems. Surrey Regional Fire Dispatch has also begun to use the technology.

"I expect once the snow starts falling on the mountains, we're going to get more calls from backcountry skiers who go off path,'' said Cohan, who also encourages people planning to venture out of cell service range to bring a satellite phone in case of an accident.

"I am encouraging everyone to get the app because, in an emergency, seconds count and this tool is one that helps us not only help you, but help you quickly.''

Chute reminded the public that search and rescue is free in B.C. — the teams rely on donations, but there is no fee for service.

With files from CBC News