UPDATE: Article has been changed to include statements from a spokesperson from what3Words.
DAWSON CREEK, B.C. – A recent Canadian Press article about a location tracking app called what3words has been getting a lot of attention in the last few days, and the South Peace Search and Rescue President is clearing the air.
Marcel Woodill says the program is decent for a variety of applications but not for locating people in distress.
“I’ve played with it a few times myself. It’s not a bad app. It’s just the promoting of using it in an emergency,” said Woodill.
A spokesperson for what3words says the app is not meant to be in place of proper preparation and safety planning.
“We support the Search & Rescue community and their calls to ensure people are prepared when venturing out. what3words is not a replacement for having the right equipment, traditional map reading skills or calling 9-1-1 but is a useful tool in the toolbox to help communicate a location,” says the spokesperson. “In an emergency you should always follow local advice and dial 9-1-1 first. If they are struggling to locate you with other methods, they may ask you for a what3words address. If you don’t already have the app downloaded, the handler may be able to text a URL which will display it.”
Woodill prefers the GPS coordinates.
“When you’re navigating the wilderness to find somebody that’s lost, the GPS coordinates get us a lot closer. Even if they mess up the last few numbers of the coordinates, we have a better idea of where they are.”
what3words creates a grid of three-metre boxes and assigns them a three-word name. For example, ‘Slip, Broom, Limit’ could be a code for a location.
Woodill sees a potential problem because words tend to sound like other words, which could be mistaken when repeated.
“The information passes through the RCMP when they get the call, then they call Emergency Management BC. When they give us those directions, there’s a possibility that a word could have been misheard or misspelled. Next thing you know, we’re sending crews off to an area that’s nowhere near where the subject is.”
Woodill says the tried, tested, and true method of GPS coordinates is still a better choice for emergencies.
“We can at least start sending resources closer to the area and narrow it down from there. We also have an app that we can send somebody if they have cell service. We can send it to somebody, and they can click a button, and it will send their GPS coordinates back to us.”
Another alternative is to open Google maps on your phone and find your GPS location on it, says Woodill.
“There’s a few other mapping programs out there that work offline, like Topo Canada, that people can get their coordinates off of.”
Woodill repeated that the app is good for a range of purposes, just not in an emergency situation.
“For navigation and exploring, and even geocaching, it’s a great app. But for emergencies, it just adds another layer that we’ve got to deal with on our end and try to decode it and make sure it’s correct. If I try to tell my team that we have somebody at Pickle Two Herring, they’re gonna be like, ‘what is he talking about?’ If I tell somebody 55.123, negative 120 765, they theoretically have an idea where that is.”
A what3words spokesperson says a recent survey of Canadian emergency control centres shows the app reduces response times.
“In a recent survey of partner Canadian Emergency control centres 100 per cent of them said that what3words “reduces response times when it matters most.” This is echoed by the hundreds of emergency services around the world who have saved lives using the system. We are reaching out to any SAR volunteer teams whose experience doesn’t match this feedback to offer our technical support, and further training to ensure we can work together to ensure people are safe and adequately prepared.”
While he recommends against using the what3words app for emergencies, Woodill says it’s better than nothing.
“At the end of the day, if it’s all a person has, it’s better than nothing.”
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.
With files from The Canadian Press
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