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LAFD Adopts Location Technology After Successful Pilot

After a successful pilot program using what3words’ location detection tool, the Los Angeles Fire Department has officially adopted the technology to reduce the time required to locate and help callers.

What 3 Words
Following a six-month pilot program, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) announced last month that it will officially adopt what3words, a technology product that can help responders to locate callers more quickly in an emergency.

As LAFD’s chief information officer, Scott Porter, explained, not every location that the department responds to can be accurately described with a traditional street address. For example, if a person needs help and they are on a hiking trail, they may not be able to precisely describe their location. Such a caller may not know how to describe their location more specifically than "I'm lost at Griffith Park," but the app can identify the precise location with three words, like rats.lucky.react, which LAFD can use to pinpoint the caller on a specific trail.

The platform uses three unique words to identify each three-by-three meter area — 57 trillion squares across the world, explained what3words CEO Chris Sheldrick, and is available in 48 languages — excluding homophones to improve clarity.

Traditionally, the procedure of locating a lost hiker involves what Porter described as a “dance” between the caller and call taker, a back-and-forth process of determining where the caller is with questions such as where they parked, what they can see and what direction they walked.

Being able to describe any location in the city with three words that are easy to say to one another could solve a big challenge for LAFD, Porter said.

But there are three ways for LAFD call takers to get the address of a caller with this tool, as Porter described.

First, if there is a good pinpoint on the map of a caller’s location, the call taker can click on that for the three-word address; in this case, the caller would be unaware the tool is being used. It would work in coordination with RapidSOS, which LAFD integrated within the dispatch system about a year ago.

The second way it can be used, through LAFD’s dispatch system, involves the call taker entering the person’s phone number and the caller will receive an SMS text message with a link. When the caller clicks the link, it’ll display the three-word location for them to verbally relay to LAFD.

The third method can be used if the caller has the what3words app installed on their phone, which will identify their location. According to Porter, this is currently the least common method, as many do not yet have the app on their phone.

However, Sheldrick noted that using the app is the best method in a situation where the caller has little or no service. Even with no service, the app will enable callers to find their three-word location identifier.

According to Porter, the tool has not only reduced the call processing time, but it has also improved response time and helped LAFD get resources to those in need more quickly.

The value was evident after the six-month pilot program, Porter said. One thing that he noticed is that call takers were using the tool in unexpected places, like very large parking lots or universities, where a traditional address may fall short.

To ensure this technology could smoothly be integrated into current procedures, the change management process was essential. Porter noted that the company offered LAFD a robust collection of training materials.

The ability to integrate the API with LAFD’s existing system was a critical factor in the decision to adopt the technology, as it makes the process more efficient for call takers.

Part of the change management process, as with adopting any new technology, was getting the staff accustomed to using the new tool. As Porter noted, it is not used on every call, so it was important to bring awareness to his team about its continued availability.

“I think of it as just one of many tools in our toolbox,” explained Porter. “It’s not a replacement for traditional addresses, but it certainly is an enhancement to those locations that are difficult to describe with a traditional address.”
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.