Last week the BBC published this “article” on what3words usage in emergency services. I use the word article with some hesitation as the whole piece reads like a press release from the very PR savvy w3w rather than any form of journalism.

Regulars followers will know that I am skeptical about w3w to say the least, they have done a good job of marketing their version of location codes as a way of verbally communicating location and no doubt there are a few scenarios where that could be useful to some people. But when they try to promote location codes as a life saving service to emergency services I think they stretch too far.

Let’s look at the main scenario in the BBC “article”

“We were in a field and had no idea where we were,” the 24-year-old care worker from Newton Aycliffe said.
“It was absolutely horrendous. I was joking about it and trying to laugh because I knew if I didn’t laugh I would cry.”

At 22:30 BST they found a spot with phone signal and dialled 999.

“One of the first things the call-handler told us to do was download the what3words app,” Ms Tinsley said.
“I had never heard of it.”
Within a minute of its download, the police said they knew where the group was and the soaked and freezing walkers were swiftly found by the Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team.

What good fortune that when they found a phone signal they also had a good enough data connection to download the w3w app! What a shame that the 999 call handler had not been trained to either use the Advanced Mobile Location (I’ll explain AML in a minute) data that would have accompanied the call or to talk the caller through an alternative that would have worked without the need for mobile data or downloading an app – by using the share location features in Google Maps or Apple Maps which will allow you to share your location by SMS even if you don’t have a mobile data connection at that moment (99.2% of UK mobiles are running on Android or iOS and will have one of these apps already installed – Source: Statista).

But that is a distraction from the main concern. AML is an European standard that was pioneered by BT, EE and HTC.

Advanced Mobile Location (or AML) is an emergency location-based service (LBS) available on smartphones that, when a caller dials the local (in country) short dial emergency telephone number, sends the best available geolocation of the caller to a dedicated end-point, usually a Public Safety Answering Point, making the location of the caller available to emergency call takers in real-time. AML improves the time taken by emergency call takers to verify the location of callers and can improve the time taken to dispatch an emergency response.
AML was standardised by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Emergency Telecommunications Subcommittee (EMTEL)[1] in 2016 as Technical Report (TR) EMTEL-00035.[1]

AML works over SMS and HTTP and is now fully supported on Android and recent versions of iOS. For more info on AML see the European Emergency Number Association

“An AML-enabled smartphone recognises when an emergency call is made and, if not already activated, activates the phone’s GNSS to collect the caller’s location information. The handset then sends an automatic SMS to the emergency services with the caller’s location, before turning the GNSS off again. The service can also use Wi-Fi, depending on which is better at a given moment. Please note that AML is not an app.’

So why would any emergency service want to encourage people to download w3w when they can hook their call centre into the AML service? Could it be a lack of knowledge or slick sales and marketing from people with an interest in promoting a commercial service?

A source who has worked in this space for several years said:

“This is so frustrating, all the emergency services public safety answering points (PSAPs) in the UK receive accurate handset location as AML messages from both Android and iPhones now and have done for nearly 2 years.. Most first responders and in some cases their local control rooms are just not aware… Frankly this misleading PR bullshit from w3w is really not helping”

But the PR people and their fan boys will keep on promoting w3w in any way they can. I hope their investors are happy.

My twitter stream lit up with people talking about the use of w3w in emergency situations, here are a select few.

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