Written by Lindsay Mackenzie
The Dallas Police and Fire Department is the latest in a growing number of U.S. public safety agencies to use what3words addresses, a geocoding technique that uses a unique sequence of three random dictionary words to reference emergencies and personnel locations.
In an announcement last week, the Dallas agency said they would begin using a free what3words mobile app and online maps in addition to their existing emergency location and mapping tools. This new addition is designed to make it easier for people to communicate their precise location, and for police officers and firefighters to communicate their exact location to each other.
For example, the location of Dallas Police Headquarters is “///shed.rocky.echo”.
“In an emergency, being able to get to a location quickly is everything because time is of the essence,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said in a news release. “Having additional tools like what3words , will help us find locations quickly and respond more quickly to emergencies to help those in need.”
What3words was founded in the UK in 2013 and its technology is now used by more than 85% of the country’s police, ambulance and fire services. Over the past year, it has been slowly adopted by U.S. emergency agencies, including the Los Angeles Fire Department and Austin’s 911 dispatch.
In an interview, what3words chief marketing officer Giles Rhys-Jones described how the company’s platform assigns names to locations.
“We developed a very simple way to talk about any location on Earth. We divided the world into small cubes — there were 57 trillion 10-foot by 10-foot cubes — and we assigned each cube a unique Three-word identifiers,” he said.
Jones said the company provided emergency services with codes for free to integrate what3words into their existing technology platforms. Many public safety agencies use the tool to provide dispatchers with an accurate location by sending callers a link to an online map where they can find a trigram of their location.
Even if callers provide traditional addresses and location descriptions, responders may still take time to find them, said Robert Uribe, the Dallas Police Department’s 911 communications and technology administrator.
The accuracy of triangulating calls using mobile network services depends on the spacing between cell towers, Uribe said. In more remote areas, the towers are widely spaced, making it difficult to find people who get lost on foot, he said. An address can also refer to a large building, but not a specific entrance.
The limitations of the existing technology did not prevent responders from finding callers, but it was necessary for callers to describe their location.
“I’m not aware of any applications that provide a strong z-axis to tell us what level of a building someone is on,” Uribe said. “I know this will happen in the future, but for now, it’s a ways off.”
What3words app has become popular all over the world. It is even used by postal systems in some countries like Mongolia to replace addresses, but it has limitations. It’s easy to accidentally say three words in the wrong order, and misspellings and regional accents can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. For these reasons, the Mountain Rescue service in England and Wales has warned users to view what3words addresses as a useful option, not a replacement for traditional navigation tools.
Uribe said the Dallas police and fire departments have taken a similar view — treating what3words as a complement to existing tools, not a replacement. They have incorporated the use of the technology into employee training, plan to educate the public about its use through social media, and will evaluate it over the next six to eight months, he said.
“We’re excited about the new technology and want it to be a successful example of how we can use technology to help influence our public safety response,” Uribe said.