Imagine that you’re the lead rescue planner for an event that has attracted more than 100,000 people. Then imagine that, sometime during that event, sensors indicate a possible anthrax contamination. That’s exactly the situation Tom Shannon, the current chief of the Salt Lake City Fire Department, found himself in nearly two years ago.

At the time, Shannon was the assistant fire chief for the city of Glendale, Ariz., which was hosting the Super Bowl in February 2008. Shannon was the liaison to the NFL, was responsible for credentialing and tracking hundreds of firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and was tasked with ensuring that those first responders performed in compliance with the National Incident Management System.

I spoke with Shannon this week in preparation for a Webinar, sponsored by Motorola, we are conducting on Sept. 15 (next Tuesday, at 2 p.m. EDT/11 a.m. PDT) that will examine how mobile-data devices and applications are being used effectively by public safety during large-scale events and incidents. We will be joined by Ben Holycross, the radio systems manager for the Polk County (Fla.) Department of Public Safety, who was deployed to Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help restore communications.

Midway through the first half of the Super Bowl, an air-monitoring system indicated the presence of anthrax. At halftime, another positive indication occurred. There were 80,000 people inside the stadium and another 30,000 or so milling outside the building. So, the decision to execute a mass evacuation was no light matter.

“Before you pull that trigger … you need to authenticate all the data you’re getting,” Shannon said. “You need to ask, ‘Is this real, is this real, is this real?’”

Fortunately, it was learned that the air-monitoring system had indicated a false positive, so no one inside or outside the stadium was at risk. The key to it all was the ability to check other sources via the mobile-data system and share that data across myriad agencies. “That was huge. We were able to put off what really could have been a pretty sizeable event of mass prophylaxis,” Shannon said.

With all due respect to the chief, I think they put off an evacuation that would have resulted in mass chaos, not just in the greater Phoenix area, but across the country. Can you imagine having to evacuate 110,000 people? And can you imagine the strain on the communications infrastructure, both commercial and public safety, if such an event had occurred?

More chilling is what might have transpired if the mobile-data system had not been in place. In such a scenario, there would have been no way to quickly determine whether the reading was real. If the threat was a hoax, that could have resulted in an unnecessary evacuation that would have put tens of thousands at risk of injury. Worse, if the threat proved to be real, the necessary evacuation could have been delayed, risking hundreds or thousands more taking ill or dying.

This anecdote is just one of many stories and insights that Shannon and Holycross will share next week as we discuss the plethora of mobile-data devices and applications that are proving valuable to first responders today and their potential for the future. I hope you’ll join us.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.