Schumer crit­i­cizes emer­gency sys­tem

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Bal­samo

As po­lice and fed­eral agents hunted for the man sus­pected of set­ting off bombs in New York and New Jer­sey, mil­lions of peo­ple re­ceived an alert on their cell­phones ask­ing for help find­ing the bomb­ing sus­pect. But a phrase in the short mes­sage, “See me­dia for pic,” has put a spot­light on the lim­i­ta­tions of the na­tion’s emer­gency alert sys­tem.

The alerts, in­clud­ing the one sent last Mon­day about bomb­ing sus­pect Ah­mad Khan Ra­hami, are sent to cell­phones to alert peo­ple in a ge­o­graphic area of im­mi­nent threats to safety. They are cur­rently lim­ited to only 90 char­ac­ters and can­not trans­mit mul­ti­me­dia files, like photos or video.

Sen. Charles Schumer ar­gues the Wire­less Emer­gency Sys­tem is us­ing out­dated in­fra­struc­ture and is in des­per­ate need of an up­grade. The New York Demo­crat, who said the re­cent alert lacked crit­i­cal de­tails, wants the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion to re­vamp the sys­tem with the ca­pa­bil­ity of in­clud­ing photos and video.

“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. “We can’t af­ford to have an emer­gency wire­less re­sponse sys­tem that is stuck in the 90’s.”

The FCC al­ready is con­sid­er­ing a rule that would ex­pand the length of mes­sages to 360 char­ac­ters and al­low phone num­bers and web links to be in­cluded in some mes­sages. The com­mis­sion’s chair­man, Tom Wheeler, said ear­lier this month that the new rule “would en­able the pub­lic to re­ceive ad­di­tional, vi­tal in­for­ma­tion in wire­less alerts.” FCC spokes­woman Shan­non Gil­son told The As­so­ci­ated Press that Wheeler has asked his fel­low com­mis­sion­ers to vote on up­dates to the agency’s wire­less alert­ing rules. A vote is sched­uled for Sept. 29.

Robert Morse, as­sis­tant gen­eral coun­sel at Ver­i­zon, wrote to the FCC in April that the com­pany sup­ports mak­ing the alert mes­sages longer, but warned that in­clud­ing links could cause net­work con­ges­tion and said mul­ti­me­dia mes­sag­ing for emer­gency alerts “is not fea­si­ble at this time.” AT&T said it, too, had con­cerns that em­bed­ding links could cause con­ges­tion, but said it was amenable to a time­lim­ited trial.

Since the Wire­less Emer­gency Alert sys­tem was rolled out in 2012, it has been used to send more than 21,000 mes­sages na­tion­wide, mainly to warn peo­ple about dan­ger­ous weather con­di­tions or miss­ing chil­dren, fed­eral of­fi­cials said. The sys­tem has been used sev­eral times in New York City, but last week’s alert was the first time the city used the sys­tem for a wanted-per­son mes­sage, of­fi­cials said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Bla­sio said the alerts have proven to be a valu­able tool. Ra­hami, the 28-yearold bomb­ing sus­pect, who is fac­ing both fed­eral and state charges, was ar­rested hours af­ter the alert was sent fol­low­ing a shootout with po­lice in Lin­den, New Jer­sey.

The mes­sage, how­ever, drew crit­i­cism from some who feared ra­cial tar­get­ing be­cause the alert in­cluded only the name and age of the sus­pect, not a photo. De Bla­sio, a Demo­crat, de­fended the mes­sage, but said he would like fu­ture alerts to con­tain pho­to­graphs.

“We want to im­prove the tech­nol­ogy and get the sign-offs we need from the fed­eral level to be able to get this tech­nol­ogy im­proved and get out images in real time,” de Bla­sio said Fri­day dur­ing his weekly “Ask The Mayor” seg­ment on WNYC. “I think we can im­prove upon it. But I re­ally find that the worst of Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back­ing is for peo­ple to cri­tique an ap­proach that ac­tu­ally helped catch a ter­ror­ist.”

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