At about 7:45 this morning, the New York Police Department reached out to the Office of Emergency Management to request that an alert be sent to all five boroughs in New York City about the primary suspect in a series of bombings in New York and New Jersey. Officials decided that the alert related to an imminent threat, and drafted and sent the alert within 15 minutes, a spokesperson for the NYC Office of Emergency Management said.
How did the push get sent so quickly? “We try to limit the approval process,” said Nancy Silvestri, the agency spokesperson. “We are empowered to make the decision locally.” That allows timely notifications to go out without being bogged down in red tape, she said.
Rahami was arrested in New Jersey after a shootout with police later Monday morning. It’s still unclear how police tracked him down.
The Monday alert was the second notification that had to do with the weekend’s bomb scare. When an explosion resounded in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood on Saturday, New York City officials sent an alert only to cellphone users around that neighborhood, warning them to stay away from windows. That alert was similar to an emergency warning sent after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, which instructed people near the blast to shelter in place. (The Boston alert did not, however, identify a suspect.)
Officials are able to target cellphones in a specific area because of how the technology works: Once a local agency submits a wireless emergency alert and a specific area, it’s passed along to wireless carriers, which then send the messages to their customers from cell towers in the target zone. Most providers distribute the messages on a channel that’s separate from the usual ways cellphones receive voice, SMS, and other data from cell towers, in order to be able to deliver alerts even when voice and text channels are congested.
New York City’s Office of Emergency Management was the very first alert originator to adopt the system when it was first introduced in 2012. Four years later, the technology has some of the same limitations. It only allows messages to include 90 characters—less than a tweet’s worth—and it doesn’t support attachments, like photos. (That’s why this morning’s alert had to point people to the media for the suspect’s photo.) Messages also can’t include tappable URLs or phone numbers.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission tried to overhaul the alert system, but wireless carriers rebelled, Motherboard reported last month. The commission’s recommendations included extending alert lengths, enabling web links, and improving their crude geotargeting technology. The changes haven’t yet been adopted.
Because of the length limitations, Monday’s alert contained very little information about the suspect NYPD was looking for. People who went searching online for more about Rahami would have found a photo, and the description police shared with the media: A 5’6” 200-pound male with brown hair, brown eyes, and brown facial hair.