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The Manitoba provincial 911 dispatch centre in Brandon has a new tool to help track down people lost or injured in rural areas.
People can be located relatively quickly in urban areas with a street address, but the process is much harder for emergency dispatchers when someone calls from a rural area, said the City of Brandon’s director of emergency communications, Robert Stewart. People may have no idea where they are or can’t see any identifiable landmarks.
"Location is one of the hardest things for us," he said.
"From a 911 perspective, really from an emergency services perspective, any call assessment that we do … it all boils down to location. If we can’t (find the) location, then we can’t get help there, and if we can’t get help there, it doesn’t really matter what else we do."
The Brandon-based 911 centre, which answers emergency calls from around the province outside of Winnipeg, recently used an app called What3words for the first time to successfully locate someone.
What3words labels each 3x3-metre plot of the Earth with a unique combination of three words. When someone reports their location using the app, they can be tracked to a specific location. The 911 centre first started using What3words, which Stewart said is free for public safety applications, in January but it proved its worth in May.
Two hikers near Whiteshell Provincial Park called 911 on May 23 to report that they were lost and needed help, Stewart said.
The 911 dispatcher wasn’t able to locate them using traditional methods, but texted them a What3words link.
When the hikers opened the link on their phone, they told the 911 dispatcher that their location was beloved.cashew.interception. Using those three words, Stewart said they were tracked to a location near the Ontario border — north of the Trans-Canada Highway and just south of West Hawk Lake.
In urban areas, the 911 system triangulates signals off cellphone towers to locate people. In rural areas with spotty cellphone coverage, the process often doesn’t work well, Stewart said. In the May 23 case, the system said the person was in Ontario.
After locating the hikers, the dispatcher was then able to send the exact location to the local RCMP, who tracked them down.
The service uses a smartphone’s built-in GPS system, rather than relying on cellphone towers. As a result, it can be used accurately in rural areas without the same communications infrastructure.
Stewart said the app could reduce the need to send out large-scale search-and-rescue efforts to find people. Rather than scouring a massive geographic area using huge amounts of resources, people can be precisely located in emergency situations.
"(The May 23 incident) ended up not needing a full rescue, and that’s the big piece of it. It took my staff member only a few minutes … we were lucky in this situation because they were lost and they weren’t suffering from exposure of anything like that, but in cases where minutes count, that type of thing can make a big deal," Stewart said.
The app only works if the person is conscious and can use their phone, but Stewart said it is another tool in the 911 dispatchers’ tool box to keep people safe.
"I think about the backcountry hikers, I think about primarily those applications. I think about the people that are hiking and they have a twisted or broken leg or they’ve fallen off of a bit of a hill and injured themselves, they’re starting to have chest pain on their hike and they just can’t get out."
» Twitter: @DrewMay_
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