As police and federal agents hunted for the man suspected of setting off bombs in New York and New Jersey, millions of people received an alert on their cellphones asking for help finding the bombing suspect. But a phrase in the short message, “See media for pic,” has put a spotlight on the limitations of the nation’s emergency alert system.
The alerts, including the one sent last Monday about bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami, are sent to cellphones to alert people in a geographic area of imminent threats to safety. They are currently limited to only 90 characters and cannot transmit multimedia files, like photos or video.
Sen. Charles Schumer argues the Wireless Emergency System is using outdated infrastructure and is in desperate need of an upgrade. The New York Democrat, who said the recent alert lacked critical details, wants the Federal Communications Commission to revamp the system with the capability of including photos and video.
“When it comes to a terrorist or other very dangerous criminal on the run, a picture not only is worth a thousand words, it could save a thousand lives if the right person sees it,” Schumer said. “We can’t afford to have an emergency wireless response system that is stuck in the 90’s.”
The FCC already is considering a rule that would expand the length of messages to 360 characters and allow phone numbers and links to be included in some messages. The commission’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, said earlier this month that the new rule “would enable the public to receive additional, vital information in wireless alerts.” FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson told The Associated Press that Wheeler has asked his fellow commissioners to vote on updates to the agency’s wireless alerting rules. A vote is scheduled for Sept. 29.
Robert Morse, assistant general counsel at Verizon, wrote to the FCC in April that the company supports making the alert messages longer, but warned that including links could cause network congestion and said multimedia messaging for emergency alerts “is not feasible at this time.” AT&T said it, too, had concerns that embedding links could cause congestion, but said it was amenable to a time-limited trial.
Since the Wireless Emergency Alert system was rolled out in 2012, it has been used to send more than 21,000 messages nationwide, mainly to warn people about dangerous weather conditions or missing children, federal officials said. The system has been used several times in New York City, but last week’s alert was the first time the city used the system for a wanted-person message, officials said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the alerts have proven to be a valuable tool. Rahami, the 28-year-old bombing suspect, who is facing both federal and state charges, was arrested hours after the alert was sent following a shootout with police in Linden, New Jersey.
The message, however, drew criticism from some who feared racial targeting because the alert included only the name and age of the suspect, not a photo. De Blasio, a Democrat, defended the message, but said he would like future alerts to contain photographs.
“We want to improve the technology and get the sign-offs we need from the federal level to be able to get this technology improved and get out images in real time,” de Blasio said Friday during his weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment on WNYC. “I think we can improve upon it. But I really find that the worst of Monday morning quarterbacking is for people to critique an approach that actually helped catch a terrorist.”