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Cellphone Emergency Alerts Are Outdated

Millions of New Yorkers got alerts delivered to their cellphones Monday morning seeking information about a suspect in Saturday’s bombing in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood. The technology that enabled the instant mass message was 15 years in the making — and the alerts’ limitations show just how much further the country’s emergency alert system needs to go to deliver timely, useful, actionable information.

As law-enforcement agencies gathered clues Monday morning, New York Police Department Assistant Commissioner Peter Donald contacted the city’s Office of Emergency Management, which coordinates alert communications, for help getting the word out about a suspect whom the NYPD feared could plan more bombings. OEM officials agreed to use the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) system, which authorizes them to transmit information about a suspect to smartphones — just the sixth time they’d blasted messages citywide. They sent this message just before 8 a.m.: “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”

About three hours after the alert went out, Rahami was captured in New Jersey after a shootout with police. New York officials said the quick capture was due in part to the alert. “From what we know right now, it definitely contributed to the successful apprehension of this suspect,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference Monday afternoon.

De Blasio didn’t provide details on how the alert led authorities to Rahami, who was reportedly found sleeping in the doorway of a bar. But de Blasio touted other advantages of the alert system, which he said offered a high-tech method to reach people instantly, instead of relying on them to be near a television or to walk by a “Wanted” poster. They go to anyone in the five boroughs — meaning visitors get the message and New Yorkers who are out of town don’t. (Some people in adjacent places may also have received the alerts in what authorities call “bleed-over” from cell towers near the edge of the city.) “This is a modern approach that really engages the whole community,” de Blasio said.

But the message also highlighted many of the weaknesses in the alerts system:

  • It contained no photo of Rahami or a link for people to follow to get more information. The technology doesn’t support those. The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the standards for WEAs, and New York City is urging the FCC to allow images and links, said Benjamin Krakauer, who leads the group at the OEM that sends the alerts.
  • It didn’t give the name of the agency that sent the message. The technology only allows for 90 characters, though the message used just 81. Proposed FCC rules would expand the number of characters to 360, although wireless companies are resisting some of the changes.
  • It went only to smartphones that were enabled to receive the messages and that hadn’t been configured to opt out. About one-third of U.S. adults don’t have smartphones and those who do have them don’t all have carriers that participate in the voluntary WEAs program. (Users can’t opt out of another kind of WEA notification — presidential alerts — which would go nationwide. Those are intended for matters of national security and never have been sent.)
  • It was sent only in English, though New Yorkers speak more than 200 languages and their city is visited by people and their smartphones from all over the world. The technology doesn’t allow recipients to customize the language they receive.
  • It produces no data to monitor who gets the messages or whether they read them. Krakauer said he was confident the Monday message went to millions of people, but couldn’t know how many because the system doesn’t produce a record of who receives alerts.

It also isn’t clear whether the alerts are effective. The system is decentralized, which equips agencies such as OEM to send messages quickly but also makes it hard to study their impact because researchers say there is no nationwide archive for messages. A 2015 report from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland found that alerts would be more effective at longer lengths and with the inclusion of a “local and recognizable” source of information (which New York’s alert on the bombing suspect didn’t include).

Reaction to New York’s alert on Monday was mixed. Bandana Kar, an associate professor of geography at the University of Southern Mississippi and co-author of a DHS-funded study of the alerts, called New York City’s Rahami alert “ill advised.” She thought it would encourage more people to opt out of getting the messages. On social media, some people criticized the alert as more likely to spread alarm than awareness.

10/28/12 Hurricane Sandy Mandatory Evacuation Order
10/29/12 Hurricane Sandy Shelter in Place
10/29/12 Hurricane Sandy Shelter in Place
01/26/15 Blizzard State of Emergency – Travel Ban
01/23/16 Blizzard State of Emergency – Travel Ban
09/18/16 Chelsea bombing Shelter in Place
09/18/16 Chelsea bombing Update on Suspicious Device
09/19/16 Chelsea bombing WANTED — Ahmad Khan Rahami
New York City Wireless Emergency Alerts*

*Issued by the New York City Office of Emergency Management

Source: New York City Office of Emergency Management

But Brooke Liu, an associate professor of communications at the University of Maryland who has studied text alerts, said prior research into older alert systems has found that recipients rarely panic. The bigger concern often is that people ignore the message until it’s reinforced by other media, friends or family members.

Deborah Glik, another DHS-funded researcher of the alerts, said the use was appropriate. Alerts contain information validated by authorities, Glik, a public-health researcher at UCLA, said by email, “a good counterpoint to nonofficial messages on Twitter and other social media and /or news media.”

Krakauer said he understood criticisms of the alert but added, “I don’t know if that outweighs the benefit of getting information out there quickly and widely.”

Part of the reason for the alert system’s limitations is that it took years to adopt and implement guidelines, and in the meantime wireless technology had evolved. Calls for a wireless alert system grew after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and in 2006 Congress authorized and funded the creation of a system, but the major carriers didn’t adopt it until 2012.

The Department of Homeland Security is now studying ways to improve the system. It has funded about a dozen research teams to look into the effectiveness of the alerts, which has helped inform the proposed changes that the FCC will vote on later this month, according to Liu.

The NYPD’s Donald said in a telephone interview that Rahami’s capture showed the value of getting his photograph in front of as many people as possible, including those who got the alert. “It’s a good day for law enforcement,” he said.

CORRECTION (Sept. 19, 9:46 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the eight emergency wireless alerts issued by New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (and listed in the table) were the only ones issued in the city. There have been other emergency alerts issued by other government and social-service agencies.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.