Corp Comm Connects

Technology helps York police 'pinpoint exactly where people are,' in rescue situations

what3words app aids in locating man, 4 kids lost on Lake Simcoe
March 1, 2022
John Cudmore

When sudden whiteout conditions blew up midday on Feb. 19, panic started to set in for five people stranded on Lake Simcoe.

A man and four children had lost their bearings in the windy, cold and snowy conditions in the Virginia area near the ice road to Georgina Island.

With no idea in which direction the shoreline was in the blinding snow, or, for that matter, where any other ice fishing huts were located, the potential for danger was heightened. It had the makings of a disastrous outcome for the ice fishing group.

York Regional Police received a call from the man at approximately 12:30 p.m. In this case, the small group was located within minutes thanks to what3words, a free app with which York Regional Police recently partnered.

It is the most recent instance of a positive end to a potentially dangerous situation in which someone has lost their way on land or water.

Police credit the innovative location technology, which can be downloaded onto iOS or Android devices for rapid rescue.

“They just didn’t know how to get back,” said YRP Const. Laura Nicolle, regarding the Feb. 19 event. “They called in, and using that app; we were able to locate them within a few minutes.”

The what3words app divides the world into a grid of 10-foot squares. Each square has a unique combination of three random words, or a what3words address, which translates to deliver longitude and latitude.

The what3words app works off-line, making it ideal for use in areas with an unreliable data connection. It can also be used via the online map at

“What’s important is that we are able to pinpoint exactly where people are (in situations) where seconds count,” said Staff Sgt. Aaron Busby of the YRP Marine Unit.

In a similar instance on Oct. 3, police were advised that three people were floating in an inflatable boat with a capsized kayak between North Gwillimbury Park and Sixth Line on Lake Simcoe.

Visibility was extremely limited due to fog, and the people were being pushed off the Georgina shore by an east wind. A police dispatcher sent the panicked callers the what3words app. They then told the dispatcher the three words and within 14 minutes were rescued by police.

By contrast, in an incident that occurred June 24 last year, police received a 911 call in the early afternoon from a boater in distress on Lake Simcoe. Officers learned that three women rented a canoe and went out on Lake Simcoe. The wind carried them away from shore, and they could not paddle back in.

Non-swimmers, they began to panic. Unable to determine their location, it took marine unit officers nearly 40 minutes to locate and rescue them.

Police in York Region began using the app what3words a few months ago to assist in quickly resolving instances where people are lost in a body of water or on land on snowmobile trails or hiking trails.

“Every winter, every summer, we get incidents like this,” Nicolle said.

“We’re having success with it, so we want to communicate to residents in the community that the information is there for us to help locate them when things like this occur.”

A video on the marine unit and the use of the app can be found here.