Alerts & Notifications

Questions About WEA Use in NY/NJ Bombings

Why weren't images used, and was this the first use of the cell alerting system for a manhunt are among the questions asked about use of Wireless Emergency Alerts for the manhunt for the suspect in the New York/New Jersey bombings.

by Rick Wimberly / September 22, 2016

Much is being said and asked about the use of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) to help find the suspect for the recent New York/New Jersey bombings. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has publicly bragged on WEA, and said the city will use it again. Some media reports tout this as the first use of WEA for a manhunt. And questions have come up from citizens who want to know why the WEA message didn’t include an image of the suspect.

In our opinion, the use of WEA for this particular situation is brag-worthy. WEA regulations say the system can be used for “imminent threats.” The decision to consider this an imminent threat, thus appropriate for WEA, is logical. During the manhunt, officials said the suspect was armed and dangerous.  

We question whether this was the first use of WEA for a manhunt since WEA is used regularly for Amber Alerts. If an Amber Alert is not a manhunt, what is? Whether it was first or not is a minor point. What’s more important is that local officials were well aware of WEA and its regulations, and were prepared to use it. That’s a heads-up to hundreds of communities across the country who haven’t gone through the relatively simple process of being prepared to send alerts via WEA.

The questions about a lack of image for WEA seemed like a good sign to us that the public was engaged. My daughter-in-law in Brooklyn says she and her friends were asking one another, “Hey, where’s the image, I want to see him?” They wanted to help, and be safe. The New York Observer wrote an article specifically addressing the question.  

In an ideal world, there would have been an image. But, WEA is not set up to provide images. The most logical approach would be to include a URL in a WEA message, but the carriers who distribute WEA messages have been opposed. They are concerned that WEA messages sent to a heavily populated area would produce network overload as thousands, perhaps millions, of people hit the same URL at the same time. There are numerous points of potential congestion. A reporter asked me if the carriers are shirking their duty to the public. No, was my response. It stands to reason that the public is not served if network overload occurs. Besides, WEA was designed to get people’s attention in a rather forceful way so they are aware of a serious situation and will seek more information.

Can WEA be better in this regard? Of course. Allowing more than 90 characters will help. This seems imminent. And the possibility of using some type of image or symbol might also help. Then, there’s the simple fact that people need to get an alert from at least two sources before taking action. We can help respond to this reality and make WEA stronger by making sure that more channels are used for alerting, and are used in a coordinated fashion. (More on this later in posts about recommendations of an FCC advisory committee. Previous posts on ubiquitous alerts also make the point.)

Bottom line, WEA worked and a lot of people who didn’t know about it now know about it. Plus, good questions were raised. And, most importantly, the suspect was caught.