What3words accident scene
(iStock)
  • South African ambulance service ER24 has partnered with mapping service What3words to get better directions to emergencies.
  • What3words divides the entire world into 3x3 metre squares, and describes each with three random words – which are much better than the vague directions it sometimes receives, ER24 says.
  • Here's how to figure out what your three words are.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

If you know the exact phrase to use, an ambulance will now be able to get within three metres of your location anywhere in South Africa – even if you don't know any road names, or your GPS coordinates, or so much as the name of a landmark.

Local ambulance service ER24 has partnered with location service What3words to use its unique addressing system at its dispatch service.

That means you can now phone ER24 and ask for an ambulance crew at "softest trend arrow" if someone is having a panic attack at the entrance to the Presidency offices at the Union Buildings in Pretoria – or for emergency help at "monument hopping stoops" if a fight turns bloody in the parking lot of Parliament in Cape Town. 

In a statement on the partnership ER24 said its crews often waste valuable time trying to figure out obscure directions, sometimes enough time to mean the difference between life and death.

ER24 believes the What3words system could be particularly useful in places without clear road and number systems, such as informal settlements, as well as in rural areas, on beaches, and on farms.

A similar emergency partnership is in place in Saudi Arabia, and police in England have urged people to download and use the system in emergencies.

What3words was created five years ago by a live events organiser who grew frustrated at trying to use arcane GPS coordinates – which need 16 digits to identify a location with decent accuracy – with the help of a mathematician and a translation expert.

It divides the globe into squares of three metres by three metres and assigns each of those a unique phrase of three words, which means a location will be accurate to roughly the space occupied by two adults standing next to each other with outstretched arms.

The system works in various languages, including Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and isiZulu.

ER24 tells Business Insider South Africa it will default to the UK English version of the app, but is comfortable it will be able to find a location in any of those three languages.

Here's how to find the three-word magic phrase you can now use to direct an ER24 ambulance to your location anywhere in South Africa.

Download the app and hit the crosshairs icon.

What3words location in isiZulu

The What3words app is free in the Google Play Store and in the Apple app store. Select a language (and download an additional language pack if you are not using English) and as long as your phone can find your location, the app will nearly instantly give you the code for your three metre by three metre square.


Check your location using Google Maps – or other options, on the website.

What3Words ER24

The What3words website allows you to view the world using familiar maps – such as Google Maps or TomTom maps – to find your grid reference.

You can search for your physical address using street names and numbers, or navigate using nearby landmarks and scroll until you find the right spot.

You can even punch in GPS coordinates for a translation.

The website will also automatically determine your location, assuming your computer knows where you are and you give the website permission to access that location data.

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