How what3words could save your life
Tap to read about the kayaker rescued from peril by an app.
Never get lost again
You’re in the middle of nowhere and you’ve had an accident. How can the emergency services find you? What3words has divided the world into 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares and given each a three-word address.
Download the app for free and tell the ambulance service you’re at ///tortoises.swarm.announce. They will find you in a specific spot on Ben Nevis. You don’t need an internet connection – and it works around the globe, in 40 languages from Welsh to Mongolian.
What3words is now used by more than 80 percent of UK emergency services – for free. The app has helped the police stop burglaries, guided mountain rescue to stranded fell runners and showed ambulance teams the way to accidents.
“It’s a use case we were keen to see from the outset because it can potentially save lives,” says what3words co-founder Chris Sheldrick. “Hearing one of the first 999 calls when what3words was used was a big motivator for me and the team. It hit home the difference our technology was making to people in need.”
A stranded kayaker’s story:
Jason Woodhouse was well prepared when he set out for a kayaking trip with friends. A former water sports instructor and wildlife rescue volunteer, he always carries safety equipment on excursions.
It was January 2020. The group were to cross the channel-like Loch Ericht in Scotland, from Dalwhinnie to Ben Alder Cottage, a mountain bothy. The approximately 23km route is “a challenging paddle,” he admits.
Woodhouse downloaded what3words the evening before the trip, just for good measure.
They set off at sunrise, it was cold but the forecast was good. “Everyone was having a good time,” says Woodhouse.
“But when we were about three quarters of the way there, the weather conditions changed.” A challenging headwind meant the rest of the group decided to continue on foot and Woodhouse stayed on the water, carrying the firewood and warm clothing.
“About a mile and half from the bothy the wind turned vicious, I was barely moving forward. Darkness started to creep in and as the wind came down the loch, it was generating a lot of waves.”
Woodhouse knew he needed to pull ashore. “But where I was there was no way to get out of the water due to the high banks on the side of the loch. I was getting very fatigued.”
He eventually spotted a rocky beach and managed to land the kayak. “When I looked at where I had landed, I was at the base of a cliff and trapped.” The batteries on his emergency beacon failed, it was too windy and wet to start a fire and the temperature was below freezing.
With intermittent phone reception Woodhouse called 999. “I shouted down the phone my what3words location – ///courage.nicer.fountain.” When his signal cut out, “I was left unsure whether the emergency services knew what that location meant,” he says.
I didn’t know where I was… I gave that what3words position and the helicopter came straight to me.
– Jason Woodhouse, what3words user
Fortunately, they did. “Within about 45 minutes I heard this rumbling down the valley and this enormous helicopter came over the water. It was this instant feeling of, ‘I’m going to be okay’.”
Woodhouse was winched to safety by the coastguard.
“It’s a really strong reminder that even if you come prepared and you are experienced, accidents can happen,” says Woodhouse, who is incredibly grateful to the coastguard – and for the power of what3words.
“I didn’t know where I was. If it had been coordinates I was giving, there is so much room for error. I gave that position and the helicopter came straight to me.”
“It’s a free app that doesn’t take up a lot of space on your phone. You would be stupid to go into the outdoors without it.”
A police officer’s story:
“The uptake of what3words within the emergency services has been massive,” says temporary inspector Jamie Gray who championed the use of what3words at Durham Police Constabulary.
His interest in the service was piqued in part after his stepfather had a heart attack on the Northumberland Moors. “Nobody could describe to the helicopter where he was, so they flew over him and landed miles away.” Fortunately he survived. “I thought, ‘What3words would have been perfect.”
The uptake of what3words within the emergency services has been massive.
– Jamie Gray, Durham Police temporary inspector
Now, says Gray, “We’re using it for about 40 incidents a month in Durham Police, predominantly for incidents where there is no postcode address.”
“I was deployed to an incident where a young man was on the roof of a car park, threatening to jump off. I was sent the what3words location and could go to the precise corner of the building he was on,” explains Gray.
“I could say: ‘Delta, hotel, seven’. That’s three words and I’ve only given you half my postcode. What3words really is just three words. It gives you an additional avenue to locate people.”