New York City officials sent a special wireless alert to millions of people on Monday asking for their help locating Ahmad Khan Rahami — but they couldn’t include a photo of the suspected bomber.
That’s because federal regulations don’t let emergency alerts, which resemble texts but travel on a separate system, carry web links or photos. Phone companies say allowing them risks overwhelming their systems. Police and emergency workers want the capability.
Instead, the tweet-like alert sent by authorities on Monday gave Rahami’s name and age and added “See media for pic.”
“The message would have been much more useful and gotten even more traction if people would have had that picture pop up readily on their alerts,” said Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for emergency services in Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston and more than 4 million residents. “New York essentially made the ‘Wanted’ poster relevant again.”
Sanchez served on a panel that advised the Federal Communications Commission on modernizing the alert system. The agency next week is to take up the matter, as it considers steps that would expand message formats for at least some emergencies.
Monday was the first time the system had been used for such a manhunt and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We think it’s a very valuable tool.”
The city’s Office of Emergency Management sent out a text with a photo of Rahami and web address. But that only went to people who have signed up to receive its service, called Notify NYC.
Rahami, 28, was captured Monday after a gun battle in Linden, New Jersey. He’s been charged with several crimes, including use of weapons of mass destruction and bombing a place of public use, in connection with a blast Saturday night that injured 29 in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
FBI agents back more capability in the alerts, including photos, said Reynaldo Teriche, president of the FBI Agents Association. “It helps put more eyes out on the streets to help us capture people who are committing criminal acts and other terrorist acts,” Teriche, an active duty agent based in New York, said in an interview.
The FCC last year in a preliminary vote called for allowing all alerts to include web links. In a Sept. 8 blog post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the enhancement would cover missing-children alerts.
Wheeler wants the agency to seek comment on allowing web links for other alerts, according to two agency officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter hasn’t been made public.
The proposal faces a Sept. 29 vote at the agency.
The alerts fall into three categories of critical emergencies: alerts issued by the U.S. president, those involving imminent threats to safety or life and “Amber” alerts concerning children who are suspected of being abducted. The alerts are broadcast from cell towers and can be tailored to a specific location. Because it operates on a system apart from text messages or voice services, it avoids wireless traffic congestion.
Wireless companies volunteer to participate in what is known as the Wireless Emergency Alerts program. In some cases subscribers can disable alerts, other than those send by the president.
Carriers have resisted adding media capabilities to alerts other than the Amber messages.
Adding phone numbers or web links “poses risk to the network with the likelihood of a communication failure to those in need,” AT&T said in a May filing with the agency. “Rich multimedia is not technically feasible.” The company proposed a trial of whether congestion would be caused by embedded links in Amber alerts.
Verizon Communications Inc. said in its own filing that expanding the features of the alerts risks “congesting networks and harming consumers’ experience.”
“They will leave less room for emergency-related directions, and will encourage consumers’ use of data and voice services during emergencies when consumers are encouraged to minimize mobile handset use to avoid network congestion,” the company said.
CTIA, a trade group representing wireless carriers, in January told the FCC it opposes adding web links because this “would encourage multiple additional attempts for voice and data communications on already taxed networks, thus compounding network congestion.”
The wireless industry is preparing a trial to determine whether photos and videos could be included in future alerts without causing harmful network congestion, Brian Josef, CTIA’s assistant vice president for regulatory affairs, said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.
New York City’s emergency management department told the FCC that embedded web references would direct the public to emergency information without having to search multiple sites.
“We believe that network congestion is a valid concern but needs to be addressed by the carriers in the interest of public safety,” city officials said in a March 8 filing.
Any tool that can help public safety “is a great thing,” said Stephen Davis, deputy commissioner for public information for the New York Police Department.
Apco International, which represents public safety communications workers, said it supports enhanced messages.
Including a clickable web address or phone number “could provide consumers a direct line to the information that is most pertinent to them,” the group said in a June filing. Earlier it said text-only alerts send consumers to the web searching for information, and embedded links “can actually reduce network congestion by pointing consumers directly to pertinent information.”
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · Todd Shields, Henry Goldman