The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved rules requiring wireless carriers to provide upgraded emergency alerts including more information than currently allowed such as photos and web links, acting after the system was used to help find the suspect in Sept. 17 Chelsea and New Jersey bombings.
The alert system, in place since 2012, is typically used to send messages to mobile phone users to warn of dangerous weather or find missing children but can be employed for security threats. The FCC said the new rules will take effect over the next one to two-and-a-half years.
A trade association representing wireless providers said it expects it will take more than a year to develop industry standards before some aspects of enhanced alerts are in place.
Shortcomings in the current system emerged after authorities in New York City used the U.S. Wireless Emergency Alert system to seek help to find the suspect in the bombings in Chelsea and the New Jersey shore. Their alert, sent to millions of mobile phone users, stated, "WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen."
The alert did not contain a picture of Rahami, who was caught on Sept. 19.
It was the first time the system had been used to help find a criminal suspect. But some U.S. lawmakers and message recipients criticized the alert because it required users to conduct an internet search to find a photo rather than simply including the picture.
The FCC's new rules expand the maximum length of emergency text message alerts to 360 characters from the current 90 and allow for embedded web address links and telephone numbers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio applauded the changes to the FCC rules in a statement "These new rules will improve our public safety officials' ability to send critical information to the public during an emergency," the statement said.
"We will continue to advocate for further improvements – supporting more languages, embedding photos and multimedia, and more accurate geotargeting for WEA messages – to ensure these alerts are as effective, efficient and life-saving as they have the potential to be,” he added.
The FCC is considering how to include thumbnail-sized photos and symbols in wireless alerts but did not act yet on that.
Wireless carriers have expressed concern that alerts that include a website address could lead to network problems if millions of cellphone users all click on a link at the same time.
The wireless trade association CTIA, representing companies including Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc, Sprint Corp and others, said it is planning to conduct a trial to gauge whether photos and videos "could be included in future alerts in a manner that does not cause harmful network congestion or technical issues."
The FCC also created a new class of action-oriented alerts like "boil water" for safe drinking water or "shelter in place" warnings during severe weather.
The commission is also requiring mobile phone carriers to deliver alerts to more specific geographic areas. Alerts are broadcast only from cell towers whose coverage areas match an emergency zone.
Sen. Chuck Schemer urged the FCC to modernize the alerts. "In light of the need to respond in real time to terror threats, we can't afford to have an emergency wireless response system that is stuck in the '90s," Schumer said this week.