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What3Words: Geography app helping Ada County dispatchers with response times, location accuracy

Ada County Sheriff's Office dispatch utilizes 'what3words,' an app that has mapped the entire world into 57 trillion 10-foot squares.

BOISE, Idaho — Mari Beth Stein and her family love to mountain bike. 

"I've been mountain biking for probably 20 years," said Stein. "I started mountain biking with my husband when I lived in Colorado and he was very into cycling."

One of her favorite things about living in Boise is having close access to the foothills so she can ride.

"We're blessed to be [living] right at the base of Polecat Gulch," Stein said.

She tries to ride her bike in the Boise foothills as often as she can. One day, the opportunity presented itself after she got off work around noon. 

"We hop on the bike and we decided we're gonna do a little bit longer loop, like two and a half hours or so to Seaman's Gulch," Stein said.

Riding on the path before, Stein knew she needed to be fast as she was going downhill on the connector trail from Seaman's to Cartwright Ridge. As she and her husband were getting ready to head onto the connector, she approached a big rut caused by spring runoff. 

"My back tire slid into [the rut] and it was pretty deep which made my front end [of my bike] get really squirrely," Stein said. "I put my foot down and it made noises and it just broke."

Stein immediately knew she broke her leg. She flagged down her husband, who was just up ahead, and called Ada County's 911 dispatch.

"We got this lovely dispatch lady. She was trying to locate us and so we get on the phone she said, 'Do you have an Apple iPhone?' I'm like, 'Yes.' So we're trying to find the coordinates on the Apple iPhone," Stein said. 

Ada County Sheriff's Office 911 Technical Operations Manager Stephanie Johnson said when a call comes in, particularly in the foothills area, the location information is dependent on how close a caller is to a cellular tower.

"However, when you get farther away from the cell towers on a trail, it's less accurate," Johnson said. "We're really reliant a little bit more on callers to clarify their locations for us. We have callers that aren't able to provide more information other than 'I'm at the trailhead' or something to that effect."

While struggling to find and send dispatch her location, Stein said the 911 operator asked if she had the app, 'what3words.' 

The app has divided the entire world into 57 trillion 10-foot squares. It gives each square a unique combination of three words known as a what3words address. 

"In an emergency, using a what3words address gives 9-1-1 callers a simple way to describe precisely where help is needed, allowing Emergency Services call centers to dispatch resources directly to the scene," wrote what3words in a news release.

Ada County Sheriff's Office said people do not need the app to receive help from first responders. All dispatch operators have access to the app through a program on their computers. They are able to access those in need of assistance's location with a cell phone ping, enter their coordinates into the app and send the information to first responders.

"Obviously, we want to give our responders the best kind of information that we can so that we can get to our callers as quickly as possible to help mitigate their emergency," Johnson said. She added the app also can track the caller if they're actively moving and it automatically updates to dispatch with new words.

While Stein didn't have the app, she was able to ping her location to dispatch and they used the what3words themselves. Dispatch then gave first responders the 'what3words' address.

"This is a tool that we have found that we're able to use to get that better information more quickly, get it out to our responders and it's easy for our callers to understand," Stein said. She added Ada County has been using what3words for a few years.

Because of her location, Stein said the rescue was about two hours. She added without 'what3words' it would've probably been much longer. Stein, who is a nurse practitioner, knows the importance of time in emergency situations. She encourages others to download the free app to their phones.

"Every second matters," Stein said.

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