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.