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BC Search and Rescue groups warning against use of What3Words app

UK-based app uses three words, instead of longitude and latitude, to locate someone
Pictured is a screen shot of the What3Words app website. The app uses a unique three-word address for locations across the globe, as opposed to longitude and latitude coordinates. ‘///pines.patches.nano’ is one of the locations on Elizabeth Lake in Cranbrook. BC Search and Rescue groups are warning against the use of this app, stating it can cause confusion. (Cranbrook Townsman file)

BC Search and Rescue organizations are warning against the use of the What3Words app, saying it’s not suitable for emergency services here in B.C.

The U.K.-based app is used by emergency services to report a person’s location using a string of three words. The premise behind the app is that three words are easier to communicate than latitude and longitude coordinates.

The app divides the world map into three-metre squares, which are all assigned three unique words. For example, on the What3Words website, when you click on Elizabeth Lake in Cranbrook the unique three words are ///pines.patches.nano.

Dwight Yochim, Senior Manager with BC Search and Rescue Association says that the app is a solution for a problem they’ve never had.

“There are tools we use to locate a subject with their cell phone which are far more effective,” Yochim explained. “You need cell service to use the What3Words app. If you have cell service, we can pinpoint your location using your cell phone within one metre.”

Many BC SAR groups have recently posted on their social media pages, saying that they do not recommend the use of the app.

North Shore Rescue says if you’re lost in the backcountry, call 9-1-1.

“If you are lost in the backcountry and have cell reception, your first action should, of course, be to call 9-1-1 so you can let authorities know you are lost and in need of rescue,” said North Shore Rescue in a Facebook post. “When your phone makes an emergency 9-1-1 call, it will connect with any cell tower in range, even if it is not from your network provider. (Therefore, a 9-1-1 call may go through even if you are not otherwise able to get cell reception where you are).”

Yochim said that the app can cause challenges because words can get easily confused. This could, in turn, waste precious time and resources.

“For example, if you send in the word ‘bats’, but we receive ‘bat’ it can cause big challenges, and similar circumstances have happened,” he said.

Yochim pointed to an article by Cybergibbons that explains the potential issues with the app.

The article mentions easily confused words such as collard and collared or beat and beet. What3Words acknowledges this aspect on their website, stating that when they “select the words to be used in each language, we do our best to remove homophones and spelling variations.”

The article also mentions a ‘broken algorithm’, stating the potential for 3,268 locations to get confused within a 20 kilometre radius.

Cranbrook Search and Rescue took to their Facebook page on Monday, October 11, to warn about use of the app. They suggested using other apps instead, as well as satellite communication devices.

“We have been hearing of incidents of inaccuracies across the province with ‘What3Words’ delaying responses (one of which sent a rescue team multiple kilometres in the wrong direction),” Cranbrook SAR wrote. “There are much better apps including Google Maps, Gaia GPS, Trail Forks, and others that give you latitude and longitude.

“If you go beyond cell service we highly recommend investing in a satellite communication device like Zoleo or InReach. Satellite communication devices work anywhere in Canada, with monthly plans less than your cell phone bill.”

Kimberley SAR had a similar message.

“As always in emergency please call call 911 ASAP, carry an emergency/messaging GPS device and create a trip plan,” wrote Kimberley SAR. “Kimberley SAR does not encourage the use of applications such as What3Words, but instead strongly recommend using GPS when providing your location to 911 dispatchers and SAR members.”

Yochim adds that the BC Search and Rescue Association has arranged a meeting with all of their agencies to ensure they are on the same page when it comes to this app and type of response.

A spokesperson from What3Words says that they support the search and 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,” they said. “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.”

The company says that a recent survey of partner Canadian emergency control centres, 100 per cent of them said that what3words “reduces response times when it matters most”.

“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,” said the spokesperson.

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Corey Bullock

About the Author: Corey Bullock

Corey Bullock is a multimedia journalist and writer who grew up in Burlington, Ontario.
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