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article imageFCC will upgrade wireless alerts after manhunt for Ahmad Rahami

By Arthur Weinreb     Sep 30, 2016 in Technology
In the wake of emergency alerts sent out during the manhunt for bombing suspect Ahmad Rahami, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to expand the system to make it more effective.
Yesterday, the FCC voted to make improvements to the four-year-old emergency alert system after criticisms were made of the alert that went out after a series of explosions hit New York City and New Jersey. The alert was issued to help the NYPD and the FBI find Rahami who was a suspect in the bombings.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 20, a wireless alert was sent out to all cellphones in New York City asking the public to assist them in finding Rahami. The alert read, "WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, a 28-year-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen."
The alert was criticized for not being detailed enough. No description or photo appeared in the alert; people were simply asked to go to the media to see what the wanted man looked like and obtain further information about the subject.
The current system is limited to 90 characters, far less than the 140 allowed by Twitter. And there is no provision to embed photographs, videos or even links to sites where relevant information can be found.
The FCC vote will expand the alerts from 90 to 360 characters and the alerts will have the capabilities to embed links and photographs. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the vague text sent out in NYC was not good enough.
Being part of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system is voluntary on behalf of wireless companies. These companies have one year to implement the changes and as text messages already have embedding capabilities, it is not expected the wireless companies will encounter any serious technological difficulties implementing the changes.
These changes were first introduced in November 2015. Shortly after the bombings, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) wrote to the FCC about the need to fast-track these changes. The senator accused the FCC of "being stuck in the 90s" and, in an era of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, the WEA need to be as smart as phones are.
Some have concerns about the new additions to the WEA. FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly is concerned the increased amount of data could jam the networks. There is also a fear too much data could drain the power from cellphone batteries.
Another change being made is to narrow the area alerts are sent to. When the bombs went off in Chelsea, a "shelter in place" alert went out across NYC. Only those people in the immediate area of Chelsea needed to be warned to stay in place.
Wireless alerts are sent out as Amber Alerts for missing children or when there are extreme weather conditions and people are advised to shelter in place. The Sept. 20 alert was the first time the WEA system was used to help capture a wanted suspect.
More about wireless emergency alerts, Fcc, ahmad rahami, Charles schumer, Bombings
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