Tag: whistle

Lost – and Found, thanks to what3words

Sole hiker lost in rough terrain
Which way now? Keep going? Turn back?

How often in your life have you been really lost? (I mean physically, not emotionally. Your emotional history could be TMI — too much information!) These days, thanks to satellite technology, a navigation app called what3words can find you!

One of my most vivid “being lost” memories is riding on the back of my big brother’s bike as we three kids cruised city streets in Seattle. Not only were we WAY far from home (thus already in trouble), but we found ourselves going round in the maze-like streets of a cemetery!

Many years later I was lost for a while hiking in the mountains high above Palm Springs. Just as in the picture above, the path was narrow and crumbly. No landmarks visible. No sounds of people or vehicles – and it was getting dark!

Do you have similar memories of being lost? Feeling helpless and scared?

Happily, today we have new ways to summon help if we’re lost!

Say you’re the guy in the photo. What would you do if you had a cell phone and a signal? Of course! You’d start by calling 911! The conversation might go like this –  

  • Dispatch: “911. What is your emergency?”
  • You: “I’m lost.”
  • Dispatch: “Where are you?”
  • You: “I don’t know. Somewhere high in the mountains above Palm Springs.”

Now, Dispatch would ask more questions, of course. But remember, in this imaginary situation you really do NOT KNOW WHERE YOU ARE!

So what do you do next???

Introducing navigation app “what3words.” (It’s free.)

what3words logo

I’m sort of embarrassed that I haven’t heard more about what3words before. Apparently, it’s been out and in the market in the U.S. for at least a half-dozen years. (It started in the UK and spread as the company received more and more funding.)

The concept is simple. Instead of using latitude and longitude numbers to identify a location, this tool divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares. (57 trillion squares each about the size of a small bedroom!) Each square is assigned a unique address made up of three words.

For example, the spot in the wilderness where you are currently lost might be identified as something like: Memorial.Riches.Carnival. Take a few steps more along the trail and you might find yourself in the square identified by: Earphone.Rotate.Otters.

If your local 911 service uses the program, and you have the app on your phone, then the conversation with 911 would continue.

  • Dispatch: “Open the app on your phone and read me your three words.”
  • You: “Earphone.Rotate.Otters”
  • Dispatch: “Stay right there. Help is on the way.”

If you don’t have the app, Dispatch would send you a link to what3words. You’d click and, as above, read out the three words that appear. You can jump to YouTube for a demo!

Image of computer screen showing emergency conversation identifying location of lost people using what3words

Click here to see and hear a recording of this actual 911 call!

(Just hit the “back” arrow when the recording finishes, and you’ll come back here to finish reading.)

There’s a lot more to the program than finding lost hikers. It can deliver supplies and people, too. The website offers a number of commercial examples for logistics, business, property management, emergency response and more.

Are there any drawbacks to what3words?

My research on what3words suggests that a few extremely remote areas on the planet (Antarctica?) haven’t been mapped. And occasionally some words that sound alike can be confused. However, the system asks you to pick from 35 languages (to avoid pronunciation challenges). And similar-sounding words (cents, sense) are purposefully assigned to places far from one another.

I’ve loaded the free what3words app onto my own iPhone.

(I picked American English as my language!)

And I’m making sure my daughter has it on her phone too. She’s starting on a road trip next week. Her group is visiting a number of wilderness parks in storm-prone areas. I wouldn’t want their trip to be ruined because someone gets lost!

When it comes to preparedness, late is OK, and certainly better than never. I recommend you download the what3words app before the next time you get lost!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. I’m recommending my daughter have a whistle, too. (Remember my 2021 story of our local Emergency Response Group delivering a whistle to every single household in our neighborhood?) The sound of a 100+ decibel whistle carries a lot further than a shout; standard SOS signal is 3 short blasts, 3 long, 3 short.

Image of hand holding orange Bivy Bag with attached emergency whistle

For my daughter I got a whistle attached to a small orange bag holding a mylar emergency sleeping bag. Click this link to the bag and whistle if you want to check it out on Amazon. Price is less than $10. Handy for hikers!

Trapped alive — How to let the world know?


In a collapsed building

Rescue workers in earthquake

Who will get there first?

I don’t know about you, but as I watched television the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco and again following the disaster in Haiti, one thing sent chills down my spine — the thought of people pinned alive and injured below fallen concrete, smashed cars and collapsed buildings, waiting for rescue, waiting, waiting . . .

By way of a side note here: My partner, Virginia Nicols, was lecturing in Silicon Valley the day the Loma Prieta quake struck.  She and two colleagues were discussing the subject of her evening lecture over dinner in a restaurant. 

The three of them went under the table and were uninjured, but damage to the restaurant was extensive with broken glass and fallen shelves throughout. They emerged onto streets with no traffic lights, no sound coming from the car radio.  This was before everyone had a car radio or a cell phone.  I set up an automatic re-dial and got through to her about 2 hours after the quake hit.

The day after she came home (we were living on the East Coast then) we went dining and dancing at a local club.  The fact that it was in an old, refurbished-brick building that would not likely withstand even a light jolt proved so distracting to her that we had to leave 10 minutes after we had arrived.  It took her more than a year to be able to spend time in what her whole being told her were potential death traps. 

And if it were you?

Imagine being buried alive, lying in the darkness, not knowing what the situation is above ground and wondering if anyone would find you before you die.  Imagine having no way of letting your family, co-workers or friends know that you are indeed alive and desperately in need of help.

How to let people know your whereabouts?!

You might immediately think of the emergency alert devices that are particularly marketed to senior citizens living alone. (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”)

When you think further, you realize that all of these devices cost money (usually a monthly subscription), operate via cell phone transmission, have specific geographic or protocol limitations and all have fairly expensive price tags.

Cell phones certainly are among the most widely available devices for letting people know where you are and what your condition is in an emergency.  But whom do you notify?  What if your battery dies?  What if the cell phone towers in your area are damaged from the emergency, overloaded with phone traffic or simply inoperative?

The reality is that cell phones have limited reliability in an emergency and, depending on the carrier, they may or may not perform well inside of dwellings.  Without electricity, batteries cannot be recharged so the cell phone may only have a limited life.  And, where the best advice is to have out-of-the-area contacts to call (to avoid overloaded local phone lines), this only works if you even have the ability to call out on your cell phone.

And, I don’t know about you, but I would find it difficult to have the discipline to wait for several hours to make distress calls in the hope that cell phone service would be restored anytime soon.

Is there an answer? 

Well, maybe there are a couple . . .

Silver Whistle

Low tech yes — but it will always work!

First, the low-tech answer.  I don’t see a lot of people adopting it, but it makes some sense. What is it?  A simple noisemaking device called a “whistle.”  I’m not sure what kind of a fashion statement it makes to wear a whistle around your neck every day, but maybe an unobtrusive one on a key chain could avoid some of the potential snickering . . . especially in the work environment.

Something to think about, depending on your daily routine.

As for high-tech option, consider social media to contact people you are connected to.  Again, this depends on whether or not you have wireless access or even whether or not you run you life by your smart phone.  Using your cell phone requires, of course, that you know how to TEXT.  (Here’s an Advisory that explains how to text for those who don’t yet do it every day.)

This is definitely a subject that warrants more conversation and there is no one or easy solution.  For now, I am looking for some more low-tech solutions.


Joe Krueger
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team