999, why can’t you find me?

4 min readApr 3, 2019

by Chris Sheldrick, Co-Founder & CEO at what3words

Growing up on a farm in a small village, I was all too familiar with the problem with street addresses. Neither our address nor our postcode led people to where we lived, and both covered multiple houses and buildings on a vast chunk of land. It was tricky to describe where entrances, equipment and barns were, let alone a specific spot in a field.

The fact that we had no way to describe an exact location troubles me to this day. What if a fire had broken out in a barn or if someone was caught in running machinery? How would we have told emergency services where help was needed fast enough to avoid extensive damage or fatalities?

Inadequate addressing is a day-to-day issue for many people in rural areas, but it affects everyone, everywhere. If there’s an incident in one of London’s 14 Church Roads, what guarantees that help is dispatched to the right one? How long would it take to find a car that’s gone off the M6 motorway somewhere in the 21 miles between Carlisle and Penrith? How do you locate someone who got lost hiking and the last recognisable reference point they saw was four hours ago?

When we developed what3words, it quickly became clear that the system would be extremely useful in emergency situations. Emergencies can happen anywhere, but since everywhere has a 3 word address, people can always be found when they need help, no matter where they are.

Last June, a tweet by Herts Fire Control was brought to our attention: a fire in a remote location was reported and found with a 3 word address. Amazing — what3words was being used for emergency response, in my home county no less!

Making what3words work for emergency services

This was the beginning of a six-month journey for our team. We got to grips with emergency services control rooms, visited police headquarters across the country, and worked with software providers. We ran training sessions, listened, adapted and fine-tuned our process and products to work best for emergency response.

The aim was to enable control rooms across the country to accept and use 3 word addresses in their operations. When precise location information is passed on during a 999 call, the help that is dispatched can go directly to that exact location. This frees up the call handler to take on another call. It means that a police officer or firefighters can get there quickly, deal with the incident, and help the next person faster.

With what3words, emergency services can save lives, precious time and much-needed resources. Today, we announced that seven UK emergency services have rolled out what3words in their control rooms, and are ready to accept 3 word addresses.

Most UK emergency services are aware of what3words, even if they haven’t officially integrated it into their systems yet. It is recommended that everyone download the app to be prepared. If a 999 caller doesn’t have the app, the call handler can send an automated SMS with a link to the what3words online map. The caller can then see their current location and read out the corresponding 3 word address.

The innovative drivers of adoption

None of this would’ve been possible without the ambitious and inspiring people championing what3words internally. They all saw the value in harnessing an innovation that would help make emergency response more efficient and save lives.

They’ve been instrumental in shaping the way emergency services use what3words, and have brought many ideas to the table, from creating an automated SMS call handlers can send to people who don’t know how to find their 3 word address, to educating local communities like dog-walkers, to promoting downloading the what3words app to Leeds festival-goers as a precaution.

It brings us immense joy that their efforts are being recognised. Humberside FCR Supervisor Paul Redshaw recently won a Creativity and Innovation award for his effective use of what3words in control room operations. Powerful reports have come out of this control room. One remarkable case involved the successful rescue of a kidnapping victim who used a 3 word address to identify where she was to police.

Make the world a safer place

It’s been incredibly exciting to learn of more and more stories of successful uses of 3 word addresses. We only hope to hear more.

It’s simple to join Avon & Somerset Police, West Yorkshire Police, Humberside Police, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue, Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue, Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue and the British Transport Police. Learn how to start using what3words in your control room.

Want you and your loved ones to have a simple way to describe where you are in an emergency? Download the free what3words app here to be prepared.




what3words is the simplest way to talk about location. It has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3 word address.