Alert System Faulted After New York Bombing Gets More Capability

  • FCC says emergency officials can use web links in alerts
  • System criticized after it couldn’t display Chelsea suspect

Police block a road after an explosion in New York's Chelsea neighborhood on Sept. 17, 2016.

Photographer: William Edwards/AFP via Getty Images

Emergency officials were cleared Thursday to add web links to wireless alerts, bringing more capability to a system criticized after a New York bombing because it carries only text in an age of online photo and video sharing.

The Federal Communications Commission in a 5-0 vote stopped short of saying emergency officials can send photos with the alerts, which travel separately from normal mobile text and calls. Carriers have said enhanced messages risk congesting the system. The agency said it would study adding photo capability.

“We can do more with these messages,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, part of the FCC’s Democratic majority. “Vague directives in text about where to find more information about the suspect -- as we saw in New York -- are not good enough.”

New York City authorities couldn’t send a photo of a suspect who was later arrested in the Sept. 17 bombing that wounded 29 people in the Chelsea neighborhood. Officials instead used the alert system to give the man’s name and age and say, “See media for pic."

‘Major Weakness’

Senator Charles Schumer, of New York, called the limitation “a major weakness.”

“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 in a Sept. 25 news release. He said similar notifications should include more details and a photo of the suspect.

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.”

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.

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.

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