Bulkley Valley Search and Rescue out on a search for missing mushroom picker. (Submitted photo)

Bulkley Valley Search and Rescue out on a search for missing mushroom picker. (Submitted photo)

Backcountry SAR teams not impressed with new locator app

SAR reps say the What3Words app doesn’t work if you are lost in the B.C. backcountry

A new app that promises to make locating lost persons faster and easier, is not meeting with the approval of B.C. search and rescue teams.

What3Words, a U.K.-based company, has divided the whole world into three-metre squares, about the size of a parking space.

The company has assigned three unique words to every square so if a person gets lost they can report the three-word combination marking the spot and searchers will be able to pinpoint their location.

But the search and rescue teams that work in the B.C. backcountry say it just doesn’t work well enough and they’re not recommending its use.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of teams across the province and they tell me that teams have been showing up at locations they were given by the What3Words app and there’s nobody there,” said Arrowsmith Search and Rescue manager Nick Rivers.

They say the three words could be misspelled or mispronounced leading to mistaken locations.

Comox Valley Search and Rescue tried a test of the app at its headquarters in Courtenay but a slight variation of the three words came up with locations as far away as Quebec.

“The ease with which an error can be made is significant and the reality is we have a system that works extremely well that every SAR agency in the world already uses and that’s latitude and longitude,” stated Paul Berry, search manager for Comox Valley SAR.

Rivers added if a person is lost or hurt but has even a weak cell phone signal, searchers send them a text from their specifically designed software that includes a link. The subject then clicks the link and it sends their exact location to the SAR team.

“We use it in every search and or rescue we possibly can so we’ve used it well in excess of 100, 150 times in the last four years with success every single time,” said Rivers.

The app does have its supporters, though, including North Vancouver RCMP.

“Before we had What3Words, it would take up to 20 minutes to locate someone because we had to work with the cell companies and there could be up to a 500-metre radius from the general coordinates they could provide,” emergency dispatcher Jodie Cohan recently told the Canadian Press.

B.C. Emergency Health Services, which dispatches to all ambulance services in the province, has integrated What3Words into all of their systems as well.

However, B.C. SAR teams say the software they use is more precise so while the What3Words app might work better for other agencies, they say using your cell phone still gives searchers the best chance of finding someone the quickest if you’re lost in the backcountry.

Regarding B.C. Search and Rescue’s recommendation against the app, a spokesperson from What3Words responded to CHEK with the following statement:

“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.

“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 that will display it.”

The company noted that, in a recent survey of partner Canadian Emergency control centres, 100 per cent of them said What3Words “reduces response times when it matters most.”

They say that has been the feedback they are getting from hundreds of emergency services agencies 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,” the company said.

~With files from The Canadian Press


Smithers and Terrace Search and Rescue retrieve an injured geologist from a mountainside gulch near Iskut. (Terrace SAR photo)