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Lost in LA? Fire department can find you with What3words location technology

The department pinpoints emergencies in wilderness areas, parking lots, waterways, freeways and other spots with no addresses.

What3words location tech for emergency response
What3words assigns three-word labels to each of 57 trillion 10-foot-square patches on Earth. The Los Angeles Fire Department now uses the technology for emergency response.

If you get lost in Los Angeles's mammoth Griffith Park, texting three words could help you find your way. The fire department of the country's second-biggest city said it had partnered with What3words, a digital location start-up that gives every spot on Earth a unique and simple three-word name.

The Los Angeles Fire Department had been testing What3words since 2020, using the technology to pinpoint places that emergency crews needed to reach even if the sites didn't have conventional addresses. The 3,300-employee department initially was drawn to the technology because it would be useful for incidents in the wilderness, where people can tell you where they parked but can't provide an address.

Now the technology is being used at college campuses, stadiums, waterways and gigantic Home Depot parking lots. The department also wants to get What3words to work better with incidents on freeways, as well as get its other technology suppliers to add What3words support.

"We're finding the use of that tool is expanding to areas where we didn't think of before," said LAFD Chief Information Officer Scott Porter.

The partnership is another example of how deeply digital technology can affect our lives. The ability of our smartphones to locate us, plus a steadily more pervasive mobile network coverage, means help can be summoned more and more easily.

What3words assigns a three-word label to each of 57 billion 10-foot-square patches on the planet. For example, the entrance to Universal Studios' Revenge of the Mummy ride is at frames.lamps.chest. (The site is just north of LAFD station 51 at amused.frogs.harsh). The technology is proprietary but free for consumers to use on the company's app or website.

Offering a unique label for each spot on Earth isn't a new idea, as the centuries-old latitude-longitude system shows. But lat-long coordinates have serious shortcomings, Porter said. That includes difficulties finding coordinates with a phone and sharing those coordinates with emergency dispatchers and responders.

"Lat-long is hard to deal with and fraught with error," Porter said. "With 16 digits, you make one mistake and you're in a completely different part of the world."

LAFD gets What3words locations in four ways. 

The first is through 911 calls on Android phones or iPhones. In many of those instances, the RapidSOS system automatically reports a precise location to the department, whose geographic tracking software automatically converts it to a What3words location included in the incident report. Second, dispatchers can send a text message with a link that retrieves the three-word address for the dispatcher.

People can also use the What3words app to find their location. Lastly, more and more signs, particularly in wildlands, identify What3words locations.

What3words also is built into many cars and used in some countries' postal systems. The company's latest investor, Ikea, is interested in the technology for package delivery. 

"They are scaling up online delivery internationally," What3words Chief Executive Chris Sheldrick said of the furniture giant. "They see how we are revolutionizing address input for e-commerce and logistics."