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National Wireless Alert System Helps, But Senator Wants Photos Included

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When police and federal agents began the manhunt for the suspected bomber in New York and New Jersey, an alert appeared on millions of cellphones asking for help in locating one Ahmad Khan Rahami. Accompanying the notice was the phrase, “See media for pic.”

The lack of a visual on the suspect highlights the shortcomings of the country’s emergency alert system, The Washington Post reports. The alerts are sent to people found in a geographic area where there is an immediate safety threat, and are limited to only 90 characters, unable to attach and transmit multimedia files such as photos or videos.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, points out that the Wireless Emergency System in use is outdated and desperately needs an upgrade to its infrastructure. Schumer want the Federal Communications Commission to retool the system to include photo and video capabilities. He says,

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 says the recent alert was sorely lacking, and that, “We can’t afford to have an emergency wireless response system that is stuck in the 90’s.”

The FCC is reportedly considering regulations that will expand the number of characters to 360 and include phone numbers and online links. Tom Wheeler, the commission’s chairman, says that the new rule would hopefully “enable the public to receive additional, vital information in wireless alerts.” A vote on updates is scheduled for September 29, at Wheeler’s request.

Robert Morse, assistant general counsel at Verizon, told the FCC in April that while Verizon can support longer alert messages, including links might cause network crowding and multimedia options are “not feasible” as of now. AT&T likewise expressed concerns over congestion, but added that it would be open to a time-limited trial.

The Wireless Emergency Alert System was launched in 2012, and has since sent over 21,000 messages across the country, primarily to warn people on dangerous weather conditions or send notices on missing children, according to federal officials.

In New York City, the system had been used several times, but last week was the first for a wanted-person alert. Mayor Bill de Blasio says the alerts proved invaluable as Rahami, 28, was arrested a few hours after the message was sent, after a shootout with police officers in Linden, New Jersey. He now faces federal and state charges.

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