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FCC should let Wireless Emergency Alerts do more to be effective

Sen. Chuck Schumer calls on the Federal Communications

Sen. Chuck Schumer calls on the Federal Communications Commission to finalize a list of long-sitting proposals, such as including multimedia images or links, that would modernize the Wireless Emergency Alert System during a news conference at his Manhattan office on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. Credit: Charles Eckert

On the morning of Sept. 19, millions of people in the NYC area received a special alert on their cellphones. It came from law enforcement officials seeking help in locating Chelsea bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami. But the alert had only limited value. While it listed Rahami’s name and age, it did not include a Web link to a photo, instead telling people: “See media for pic.”

It turns out that federal regulations for these emergency alerts don’t allow links or photos. That must change.

The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote Thursday on upgrades to the 4-year-old Wireless Emergency Alert system. One proposal would allow links to photos in the Amber Alerts used to find missing children, one of three categories of WEA messages. The agency should extend that to all alerts. Quick access to photos is important when the public’s safety is at stake.

This alert system has been used more than 21,000 times nationally since its inception in 2012. And it’s been effective. Officials send alerts through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for extreme weather and other imminent threats, missing children, and national alerts from the president of the United States. In NYC, the system has been used for storm warnings and child abductions.

But the system must be improved, especially as reliance on cellphones deepens. The FCC also is set to vote on increasing the alert limit from 90 characters to 360, and to allow alerts to go out in Spanish if needed. Both are good ideas. Translation to other languages should be included, too, especially if the FCC approves a proposal to require carriers to target alerts to smaller geographic areas. That way, only people genuinely at risk would receive an alert.

As improvements are made, we must ensure the criteria for sending alerts remain well-defined and that the system is used only as intended — for true emergencies, like the one existing when Rahami, an alleged bomber, was on the loose.

Police caught him quickly. That was fortunate. The alert system can be a useful tool in such manhunts, and in severe weather, but only if it communicates as effectively as possible. The FCC should adopt these reforms.