What three words can save your life?

A frightened man talking on a cell phone in the woods By bodnar.photo/Shutterstock

If you were in an emergency, what three words would you choose to get help to your location as quickly as possible? Smartphone’s GPS services are not 100 per cent reliable and, even street addresses can be too vague.

A new application, what3words, has assigned every three square metres in the world a unique and precise address, using three distinct words. The words are randomly assigned to each square and are unchanging.

Ontario emergency services are increasingly using the app to find people who are lost, like a 70-year-old Huron County man who lost his way going out one day in April and was not rescued until 6 a.m. the following day.

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) introduced the app to locals December 1, 2020, and since, provincial communication centre agents recognize and are trained to coordinate emergency rescues with the app. What3words uses minimal cellular data to generate the three-word address. If the caller does not have the app already, dispatchers can send a link that can quickly generate the address.

“It’s a real game changer for us in the north,” says Andrew Hurlbut, the boating, safety, and emergencies rep for the Georgian Bay Association (GBA).

When the app launched, Hurlbut thought, Wow. The Georgian Bay itself spans 15,000 square kilometres. When you include the kilometres of coast and its 30,000 islands, “there are all kinds of places you can disappear,” Hurlbut says.

While longitude and latitude coordinates are just as precise, the three-metre-square approach is easier for the everyday person to relay over the phone, Hurlbut finds. This is why the association is actively encouraging their members to adopt the app.

“Whether I’m at my dock, whether I’m out back, whether I’m off to the side in the woods, or on my particular island…it makes that kind of rescue that much easier,” says Shannon Farquharson, the GBA’s communication and executive services coordinator. “My in-laws, who are in their 80s, have it on their phones, and my son, who is 11, has it on his. It’s something that anybody of any age can use, and can figure out how to use in a hurry,” she says. The GBA wants the bulk of their members to be at least aware of the app, and hopefully also start downloading it and using it.

Before technology like what3words, people relied more on themselves and good samaritans, Hurlbut says. Not long ago, marine radios were used to contact the Coast Guard—an asset in and around Georgian Bay, he adds—and rescues went from there, often coordinated by the Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers dotted around the bay. Otherwise, boaters relied on paper charts.

“Imagine,” Hurlbut says. “Big waves, rolling thunder and winds and this map is blowing around,” he says. “Technology has been a boon to boating safety.” He reminds us that outdoor safety starts with a few basics: “If you’re travelling out, it’s best not to go alone. Go with someone, and notify people of what your intentions are, where you’re going, and when you expect to get there, so people know to look for you when you don’t show up.”

For emergencies at your cottage, Hurlbut says to consider giving the three-word address for your dock if it’s the easiest access point to your property. Before you go off hiking in the woods, figure out the what3word start point and end point. This is useful for trips on foot and boats. “You can be 3,000 metres off and it can point you back in the direction you came from.”

Farquharson says the app can also help you mark, for example, a picnic spot you found and want to get back to. “Every family on the Bay,” she says, “has a story about a rescue.” On the Bay, she adds, quoting Hurlbut, “you’re your own first responder and you have to rely on yourself first.” A tool like what3words makes the responsibility a little less daunting. “If I can pull out my phone and say ‘911 can get me’, it’s a load off.”

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