Cellphone Spikes and Disaster Management

By | August 7, 2007


Steven Levitt makes a good point on the Freakonomics blog about the spike in cellphone usage after the Minneapolis bridge collapse which alerted at least one carrier to an emergency before the news hit. His conclusion:

This would seem to hints at strategies that could be useful for coordinating quick emergency response more generally, as well as military/intelligence applications.

One commenter suggests that this may simply throw up lots of false positives, while another says the real problem is in identifying the cause of the spike — disaster, or a radio station offering $1,000 to the 26th caller?

Seems to me that you should be able to tell pretty quickly where the spike originates — lots of people calling from stranded cars on a bridge are unlikely to indicate a phone-in competition. Perhaps if cellphone masts and base stations also included cameras and/or two-way communication devices it would be possible for cellphone engineers to be able to not only assess the situation but open their communications up to rescue services, who could then monitor the situation and convey instructions and information to those in the affected area.

2 thoughts on “Cellphone Spikes and Disaster Management

  1. Unspun

    There is also a scenario, if I’m not mistaken, as played out on Sept. 11 at the Twin Towers: the disaster was so wide scale that it took out some base stations as well, so there were no calls registered in that area.

  2. Tom Griffiths

    Scale would make a significant difference to the ability to identify the disaster location even if the base stations were intact. I happened to end up in Halifax, NS on the 11th September 2001 along with approx 9-10,000 other involuntary visitors(we were brilliantly looked after). The mobile/cell base stations there were mostly swamped soon after the first aircraft landed and that was a LONG way from New York. I know that some major airports had the same problem from time to time on that day as well, even quite early on in the reporting process as many air passengers were among the first to be aware of the disruption.

    On the matter of co-ordinating response on-site, so-to-speak, I think many large organisations involved in disaster management avoid relying on mobile phone use just because it is so difficult to get an assured connection when a major incident occurs. Perhaps too many people now see themselves as ‘people’s reporters’.


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