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During an emergency, be it natural or man-made, people will have to be moved or sheltered in place. The National Incident Management System or NIMS does not give tremendous amount guidance about how to gauge the effectiveness of measuring population density in an afflicted area. Any tool that could help to gauge population density would be helpful to an incident commander or first responder. A tool that measures the number of cellular transmissions in a given area would be invaluable. The logic being: the more transmissions, the more people.

Why Measure?

Incident commanders need accurate information in order to effectively leverage resources during a disaster event. Each person in the impacted area has basic food, shelter and medical needs. Whether the event is anticipated or not, effected population measurement is critical. Regardless of whether the incident commander is working an active shooter scenario where students are taught to shelter in place, or a forecasted weather event response where people are often told to evacuate, many people use cellular or Wi-Fi connected devices to communicate while the event is in progress. Tracking these signals would offer the first responder invaluable information and enhance the common operating picture of the area. Even when managing the exodus of a stadium crowd this tool could be helpful for deploying traffic control resources.


Today, the average cellular phone can be tracked to within a few feet of the transmission point using the phones built in response to an interrogation signal. Using a combination of wireless location services and software to collect that information into a mapping system, the incident commander would gain insight to the collective intelligence of the people in an afflicted area. Collective intelligence and crowdsourcing is a consensus-driven decision making process. During an active shooter, the incident commander could see people fleeing the danger area, which may offer two critical pieces of information just from looking at anonymous wireless transmissions: 1) where the danger is and 2) where the people are fleeing to.  Think of a herd of gazelles being pursued by a predator. By observing the direction from which the gazelles are running, one can determine the direction of danger.

Case Study

During the Virginia Tech Massacre, students used their cell phones to communicate. The location of the shooter was largely unknown and added to the chaos. Had incident commanders or university police been able to access the collective intelligence of the people, they would have had, at least, a clearer picture of where the shooter was not. Armed with the information, first responders could have focused their limited resources more effectively.

This technology exists now – just check out Google Maps Traffic which uses a crowdsourcing model to report on traffic congestion. The concept of measuring population density in an afflicted area, in the same manner as Google Maps Traffic, makes sense, and in this case, it could save lives.

Want to discuss this topic further?  As a communications solution engineering firm, MissionMobility is excited to meet the needs of the emergency management industry.  Contact us today at [email protected]

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