NYC bombing spurs push to overhaul emergency alerts

NYC bombing spurs push to overhaul emergency alerts
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New York City is pushing federal regulators for an overhaul to the smartphone emergency alert system following the recent bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey.

City officials sent New Yorkers an alert early Monday morning, buzzing phones and alerting the public that they were hunting a suspect.

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Now in phone calls and letters to the Federal Communications Commission, top officials are asking the agency to vote at a Thursday meeting on changes to the system.

“These needed improvements are far too important to be delayed," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The FCC vote was scheduled well before and the city has long pushed for the changes, but last Saturday's bombing has put the spotlight on a previously obscure battle over the future of the alerts system.

A vote in favor of the changes could open the door to alerts that include more information and features for the public than the current system allows.

Investigators quickly closed in on suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami after a bomb detonated in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. On Monday morning, as they searched for Rahami, they sent thefirst-of-its-kind wireless alert to aid their efforts.

“WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old-male,” the alert said. “See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”

Officers took Rahami into custody later on Monday.

City officials immediately started calling regulators’ attention to their use of the alert system in the case.

Officials from New York City’s emergency management agency discussed their response to the attack with a staffer from Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai's office that same day. Throughout the week, city officials also spoke with agency staffers, according to public filings.

The city and its supporters hope that the commission will make several substantive changes to the alert system. First, they want to be allowed to include images and links in the alerts. They also want better options for targeting the alerts to a specific location, the ability to gather feedback from citizens and support for multiple languages.

“Very broadly speakingwe think the ability to hit anybody, whether they’ve opted in or not, on their cell phone for real, significant emergencies is a home run,” said Benjamin Krakauer, the director of watch command at the New York City Department of Emergency Management. “But the system could be a lot better.”

Krakauer said that at a time when people can share images and videos from their personal devices, authorities were still limited in their ability to add multimediacontent to alerts and were restricted to character limits that are “significantly less than even a tweet.”

The current proposal making its way through the FCC would lengthen the alerts to 360 characters from 90, according to an agency official. The proposal would also require providers to allow alerts in Spanish and let authorities add links to AMBER Alerts, which are issued for missing children.

A second portion of the FCC proposal — called a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking — would let the agency formally consider whether the system should incorporate multimedia. De Blasio and other city officials have urged the commission to support the addition of pictures and links to all alerts immediately.

Proposals at the FCC can be changed until they are brought up for a vote.

But some are aren’t as supportive of the proposals.

Companies that work on wireless devices say they are wary of some of the proposed changes and worry about the demands they put place on data networks.

Apple at a March meeting urged that “the Commission consider the possibility that numerous users simultaneously attempting to access embedded references during emergencies could overwhelm networks (such as cellular data networks and networks providing

service to Wi-Fi routers) and web servers,” according to a filing.

The iPhone maker also said that it believed that longer alerts could “inundate the user with information, leading to less user comprehension and increasing the likelihood of user opt-out.”

And CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, has suggested more testing before a decision on including multimedia in the alerts.

“In our efforts to continually improve WEA, the wireless industry is preparing a trial to determine if multimedia capabilities — like photos and videos — could be included in future alerts in a manner that does not cause harmful network congestion or technical issues,” said Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, in a statement.

The trade group lobbied the agency as recently as this week.

Joining de Blasio in pushing Wheeler are two other high-profile officials from his administration, Police Commissioner James O’Neil and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

“The Wireless Emergency Alert system has tremendous potential and is a tool that I have every intention of using again when the situation warrants — but it needs to be improved,” said O’Neil in a letter. “Lives are truly on the line.”

And Krakauer said New York City pushed cities nationwide to offer support. Officials from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, D.C. and Seattle have offered support this week for the changes New York is championing.

“We took a lot of calls and spoke with our colleagues across the country,” said Krakauer, “and said, in the context of briefing them on what happened in Chelsea, ‘The FCC is voting on these rules, it’s a good time to remind the FCC how important this is to the public safety and emergency management community.

"And that’s what they did.”