How precise locations with what3words can save lives in emergencies

In an emergency, when every second counts, reporting exactly where first responders are needed is crucial. However, an incident can happen anywhere - from a house with an unreliable postcode, to a point along a towpath, or even somewhere deep within a forest - but where there is no accurate street address or identifiable landmark, it’s almost impossible for a 999 caller to describe their precise location. This means call handlers are frequently provided with inaccurate or unreliable directions, which can limit their ability to dispatch response teams quickly.

what3words is providing a solution. It has divided the world into 3m squares and given each a unique 3 word address. Now, many emergency services around the UK, can locate callers accurately using just three words. For example, a person reporting a crime along the River Calder would be able to give a call handler from West Yorkshire Police their three words, for instance ///chin.asleep.pump, and help would be dispatched to that exact location.

what3words is available as a free app. In regions where services have officially adopted the system, a person calling 999 can simply open the app and give the 3 words for their current location to the call handler, who will retrieve the location from what3words’ map site.  Many command and control systems have also integrated what3words, so that a 3 word address can be entered directly into the software’s search bar. Several services have even deployed the what3words app onto team devices so responders can then get directions to the precise 3m square.

Many stories are emerging about how 3 word addresses are being used effectively by Emergency Services. The type of incident varies widely - from locating lost and vulnerable missing persons, to tackling fires, to assisting a criminal investigation. In one particular scenario, Humberside Police used what3words to identify the location of a woman who was being held hostage. The victim called 999 but had no idea where she was, however, the Police talked her through downloading the what3words app and finding her 3 words. It meant they could identify exactly which building she was in.

Paul Redshaw, Force Control Supervisor at Humberside Police who was involved with the incident said: ‘what3words is a great tool that helps us get officers to people that really need our help as quickly as possible.’

To encourage people to share 3 word addresses for crimes and incidents, services are raising awareness of the free what3words app in their local communities. In emergencies where the caller hasn’t pre-emptively downloaded the app, control rooms send  an SMS with a link to map.what3words.com allowing them to view the 3 words for their current location.

As more Emergency Services add what3words to the range of tools they have for emergency response, the potential uses for this technology within policing and emergency response are growing.

This case study was contributed as part of techUK’s Digitally enabled public safety report: Harnessing the power of tech to tackle violent crime. You can access the full report here.

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