The smartphone alert sent to New Yorkers during the hunt for bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami has thrust wireless warning systems into the spotlight.
The message was sent out around 8 a.m. EDT Monday and urged anyone with information on Rahami and his whereabouts to contact police. “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen,” it read.
Rahami, wanted in connection to this weekend’s bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey, was captured after a shootout in Linden, New Jersey a few hours later.
Police consultant and retired LAPD Lieutenant Raymond Foster told FoxNews.com that alerts can be an effective way to share emergency information. “It’s a tool, we live in the 21st century,” he said. “They target [the alert] at cell towers, so it’s very geographically targeted.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill praised the alert system during a press conference on Monday afternoon. “I think this the way to go, this is the future,” said O’Neill, explaining that the system boosts police engagement with people across the city.
However, some critics described the New York City alert as alarmist and questioned the wisdom of publicly identifying the suspect in that manner.
Foster told FoxNews.com that police forces must think carefully before deploying this type of message. “It’s a tool that they have to use judiciously – I would come down on the side that they did the right thing this time,” he said, noting that the authorities were clearly prepared. “They have flooded the streets [with police] before they sent this out.”
The NYPD told FoxNews.com that the city’s Office of Emergency Management put the alert out after conferring with police.
The alert used the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which was developed by wireless industry association CTIA, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The WEA smartphone alert system is very effective and can be targeted fairly precisely,” ccommunications expert John B. Minor, who is based in Odessa, Texas, told FoxNews.com, via email. “The alert system used in the hunt for bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami is the same system used to alert my family on Saturday evening of an imminent tornado strike on our home. Thankfully, the twister never touched down but passed directly over my home.”
“We will see more use of the WEA in the future and it will save lives, particularly if subscribers heed the warnings and instructions,” he added.
Although they resemble text messages, WEA messages use a different technology to reach users’ phones, which means they are not subject to potential congestion or delays on wireless networks. Specifically, WEA uses a point-to-multipoint system, which means that alert messages can be sent to a targeted area, according to CTIA. Text messages, in contrast, are not location aware.
“The use of this type of messaging system can be very effective when one considers that a high percentage of the population keeps a smartphone nearby,” said Minor, noting that the WEA system is not tracking the location of subscriber smartphones. Subscribers can turn off the alerts, albeit at the risk of their safety, he added.
In a statement, CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker described Monday’s WEA message as “one of thousands of examples that show the partnership that wireless carriers have with FEMA-authorized alerting agencies around the country to help keep Americans safe.”
FEMA authorizes a host of “alert originators” that include federal, state, local and tribal public safety agencies. When a request to send out an alert comes in, FEMA authenticates the sender and the alert. Participating wireless carriers then send the information to WEA-enabled phones in a specific geographic area.
“It has been used before in the search for dangerous suspects, obviously this is a very high-profile case [in New York] across a very large geographic area,” a FEMA spokesman told FoxNews.com.
WEA, he explained, is one of the emergency warning methods within FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) infrstratructure. “Think of its as the highway that the alert uses,” he said.
At this stage WEA messages are limited to 90 characters and images cannot be placed in the alert. “We’re working closely with the FCC and the wireless agencies to further improve the system,” said the FEMA spokesman.
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