U.S. Senator Calls on FCC to Update Wireless Emergency Alert System

Sen. Charles Schumer points to limited features of federal alert system as being out of date.

by / September 26, 2016
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) in 2014. Flickr/Mike Steele

Just nine days after an explosion injured nearly 30 people in Manhattan and triggered a citywide manhunt for a terror suspect, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for modernization of the federal emergency alert system.

Schumer said in a press release on Sunday, Sept. 25, that the existing system, known as the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA), was not in keeping with needs of modern technology and lacked basic features that could greatly improve public safety.

Following the detonation of a homemade explosive device in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and the discovery of other explosive devices Sept. 17, public safety officials issued WEA notifications to residents advising them of potential danger and later asking for assistance in locating the suspected bomber, 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami.

“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,” the senator’s statement read. “The bottom line is that in the era of Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat, our Wireless Emergency Alert System needs to get as smart as our phones and be updated so it can deliver photos and other media that has information that can save lives.” 

The WEA system is operated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a means of emergency notification. Though the FCC has already discussed some updates to the system, Schumer said the tool needs multimedia capability to serve as a truly effective resource.

Alert notifications are currently limited to 90 characters and do not contain images or videos. Schumer said the information gap forced alert recipients in the area of the Manhattan bombing to hunt for incident information online rather than having it immediately available on their personal devices.

“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 said, adding that we are in an age where sending a photo or video via text is commonplace.

"Yet when it comes to the nation’s Wireless Emergency Alert System, our texting capabilities are limited," he continued. "Last week’s terror threat here in New York highlighted a major weakness in our Wireless Emergency Alert System when millions of New Yorkers were left with no other option but to ‘Google’ for more information. To maximize safety, the FCC should quickly update our emergency alert system by increasing the number of maximum characters permitted and allowing for pictures to be attached.”