New Yorkers throughout the city were alerted Monday morning to the name of the Chelsea bombing suspect when the city activated its emergency alert system, the first time it has done so for a wanted suspect.
The system, which utilizes cellphone towers to disseminate the message, blasted out Ahmad Khan Rahami’s name and age at 7:54 a.m., asking people to call 911 if they saw him. Rahami was captured less than three hours later in Linden, New Jersey.
The Office of Emergency Management said this was only the eighth alert the city sent in the system’s history.
“We think it’s a very valuable tool. We think it created a lot of focus and urgency,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a news conference at police headquarters on Monday. “This is a tool we will use again in the future in similar situations. There obviously was an imminent threat and it was a very appropriate situation in which to use it.”
While the system, part of the Federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, is only sent to people in the five boroughs, some as far as New Jersey reported receiving it, said Ben Krakauer, the director of the Watch Command with the OEM. The system also had been activated for superstorm Sandy and on early Sunday to warn people on 27th Street, where a secondary device was found, to stay away from their windows.
“It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis. I don’t see us using this for every burglary suspect or robbery suspect,” Krakauer said. “But in cases where there’s a clear need for immediate action by the public, I think we would do it again.”
Krakauer said the system can only send out 90 characters at a time — less than a tweet. It also can’t send a photo and had to direct New Yorkers to media outlets for Rahami’s picture.
The alert system is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and can also includes bulletins from the National Weather Service and Amber Alerts.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill said “a lot of good old-fashioned police work” went into capturing Rahami but added that the new technology is helpful.
“It gets everybody involved. It’s that sense of shared responsibility,” O’Neill said. “There’s 36,000 of us, a number of FBI agents, but if we can get everybody in the city engaged in helping keep it safe, I think this is the way to go.”