Following the arrest last week of 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami—the man accused of setting off a series of explosive devices in New York and New Jersey earlier this month—Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the emergency text alert that pinged area cellphones with Rahami's name, age—and little else—as an "extraordinary" aid in his capture.
"We think it's a very valuable tool. That it created a lot of focus and urgency," de Blasio said, adding, "It was very appropriate and something they [the city] will use in the future."
Some locals countered that the bare-bones notification, which didn't provide a picture of Rahami, encouraged racial profiling—anyone who looked like their name might be Ahmad Khan Rahami, they said, was vulnerable.
"Put a picture or something so at least you know who to look for," a Staten Island resident told WSJ this week. “Because how many Ahmads are there around?"
New York Senator Chuck Schumer sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—which manages the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA) used to issue the Rahami notice—on Sunday. The FCC proposed new WEA parameters last November, including the ability to embed phone numbers and URLs, and increasing the maximum character length per-alert from 90 to 360. Schumer urged the FCC to act on these measures quickly, and add the ability to embed photo and video.
"In light of the need to respond in real time to terror threats, we can't afford to have an emergency wireless response system that is stuck in the '90s," Schumer stated. "The bottom line is that in the era of Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat our Wireless Emergency Alert System needs to get as smart as our phones and be updated so it can deliver photos and other media that has information that can save lives."
There are currently three types of permissible WEA alerts: alerts from the President; those involving safety threats (mandatory evacuations, terrorist threats, etc.); and Amber Alerts for abducted children. According to Schumer's office, last week marked the first time the system had been used to employ the public's assistance in locating a terrorism suspect. An alert also went out to Chelsea residents the night of the bombing; it read: "Suspicious package: residents on W 27th b/t 6th and 7th Ave stay away from windows."
The WEA system was also used to order a mandatory coastal evacuation in New York City ahead of Hurricane Sandy and, notably, to encourage Boston residents to remain indoors while the Boston bombing suspects were at large.
Speaking on Brian Lehrer's "Ask The Mayor" segment on Friday, Mayor de Blasio maintained his stance on the Rahami alert, and criticized detractors. "I think we can improve upon it," he said. "But I really find that the worst of Monday morning quarterbacking is for people to critique an approach that actually helped catch a terrorist."
"We also knew that the image would be around instantly given the reality of modern communications," he added. The mayor could not confirm last week exactly how the text alert contributed to Rahami's capture, and a de Blasio spokeswoman did not comment on Monday when asked if the alert's exact role had been determined.
De Blasio sent his own letter to the FCC on Thursday, requesting specific updates to the text alert system that overlap significantly with Schumer's. In addition to hyperlink and image capabilities, the mayor requested more specific geo-targeting capabilities ("so messages are sent to the correct area with minimal overshoot or undershoot") and the ability to send out messages in multiple languages. The mayor also requested some sort of "feedback" capability, so that civilians would be able to respond directly to an alert.
"NYC Emergency Management originally submitted a letter to the FCC in June advocating for upgrades to the Wireless Emergency Alert system," added Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Nancy Silvestri in a statement. "After NYC used the Wireless Emergency Alerts system three times in response to the September 17th bombing in Chelsea, we spoke with FCC Commissioners last week and filed an additional notice with the FCC emphasizing that the use of the alert system would be significantly improved by the FCC promptly adopting several rules in the interest of public safety."
According to the Wall Street Journal, Verizon wrote to the FCC this spring, cautioning that including web links in WEA alerts could result in "inadvertent network congestion." The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but is reportedly scheduled to vote on the WEA updates on September 29th.