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Dallas PD, Fire Roll Out Enhanced Call Locator Tech

The city of Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department have adopted what3words, an application that enables the emergency response teams to better their missions with improved location detection.

Dallas freeway with what3words location that reads stamp.zest.admire.  The text coincides with a specific square on the freeway.
Highway intersection - Dallas, Texas
Two agencies within the city of Dallas — the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department — have officially launched the citywide rollout of the what3words application.

The effort to improve search and rescue missions through technology, such as robots and drones, is one that has been gaining prominence in recent years, coinciding with the increasing number of natural disasters. Several years ago, the Dallas Police Department added drones to their portfolio of technologies to improve public safety.

Now, the city is looking to further enhance rescue operations through the use of what3words — an application that was adopted by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 2021. The tool provides three unique words to identify 57 trillion 3-by-3-meter areas of land across the world.

The public rollout of the technology was officially announced by the end of September following the training of the officers that will be using the technology, explained Robert Uribe, 911 communications and technology administrator for the Dallas Police Department.

This application can be especially helpful for Dallas in the case of rescue missions on hiking trails, at large events, or for callers who are unfamiliar with the area.

Because the city is densely populated with tall buildings, cellphone tower triangulation can be interrupted by what is referred to as “drift,” which causes imprecise location information when tracking a call. In contrast, what3words uses precise GPS coordinates, so if a caller in need of help provides their what3words address, it can help officials get to that location more quickly.

Uribe said that the department will be looking at multiple factors over the next six to eight months to measure its impact and effectiveness, such as how much faster it helped staff to find someone who did not know where they were, how reliable the technology is, how difficult is it for the end user, and the public reception.

“Well, if we save one life, in the course of the entire use, just helping one person — that’s success to me,” he said.

The biggest change in operations for staff, he said, will be that officers now have a tool in their hands to locate somebody more quickly than with the traditional back-and-forth through radio that is reliant on information from the dispatcher.

The application’s technology is available in 50 languages and purposefully excludes homophones for clarity purposes.

The application will be used with the other applications that the department already uses; for example, the 911 system that has cellphone triangulation capabilities.

According to Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer of what3words, different emergency service agencies — even within a single county — often have different operating systems. What3words offers a simple tool to integrate with the other systems already in use. Because the platform has been integrated into a number of back-end suppliers, like RapidSOS and Hexagon, the change management process for agencies is typically very straightforward.

“It’s generally a no-coding solution,” he said.

The company offers plug-in options, and the platform can be integrated using a number of different programming languages. Jones explained that essentially, what the API does is convert GPS coordinates into words and back again.

“Ultimately, we have to synthesize that information as a department, integrate it into our operational protocols, and then ensure that we effectively roll it out within what we do,” Uribe said.

The company has expanded its footprint in the U.S. in the past year, and although a large part of that has been in the commercial space, it is increasingly being recommended as a support tool in emergency situations — in part because the company does not charge emergency services for the use of this technology.

“We give our technology away free to emergency services — to NGOs, charities, people who are doing good with the system — we give it to them free. It’s the right thing to do,” Jones stated

For example, it is being used by multiple emergency services in Florida, which can help dramatically in crisis situations like Hurricane Ian. The tool is currently being used by 911 emergency communications centers across the U.S. through RapidSOS and other software partners.

In addition, the tool has been found to be useful in big infrastructure projects for asset management and planning, and Giles stated that the company is only seeing more and more possible use cases.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.