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Cellphone alerts used in New York to search for bombing suspect

NEW YORK — All around New York City, cellphones blared Monday morning with the dissonant, but familiar, tone of an emergency alert. But this time, the alert — typically used for weather-related advisories or abducted children — was different.

The nation’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system was deployed as an electronic wanted poster, identifying a 28-year-old man sought in connection with the bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey.

Suddenly, from commuter trains to the sidewalks of Manhattan, millions were enlisted in the manhunt.

The message was simple: “Wanted: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”

It roughly coincided with an appearance by Mayor Bill de Blasio at 7:30 a.m. on CNN, where he announced the name of the suspect and shared a photograph released by the FBI. Authorities simultaneously spread the image on Twitter, hoping to ensure that those receiving the alert around 8 a.m. and after on their phones would have no trouble finding the image of Rahami.

The messages are targeted to a cellphone’s location, so the alert Monday was received by those in New York City, but not those in all parts of the state.


A spokesman for the State Police said the decision to release the message came from authorities in New York City; a spokesman for de Blasio said it was the first time an alert was used for such a purpose.

There are three broad types of alerts in the national system: emergency alerts for storms and other threats to public safety; Amber Alerts, which seek to enlist the public in a search for an abducted child; and those issued by the president. Cellphone users can opt to block all but the presidential alerts.

The emergency alerts can be sent to the national system by federal, state, or local authorities who have been authorized to do so and can include shelter-in-place instructions or evacuation orders precipitated by “severe weather, a terrorist threat, or a chemical spill,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.


In New York City, the alerts have been used eight times since 2012: three times during Hurricane Sandy, once to alert a travel ban during a 2015 winter storm, and twice during the bombing in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, according to city officials.

The first warning, on Saturday night, was directed at people in the Chelsea area, warning them to stay away from windows as police cleared an unexploded device from 27th Street. The second went across the city to assist in the search for Rahami.

By late morning, law enforcement officials said Rahami had been captured.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday it was not the first time the system had been used to ring out a search for a dangerous suspect, but the agency could not immediately provide a past example.

FEMA authorizes messages from a local, state, federal, or tribal government agency and sends them on to wireless carriers. In this case, FEMA said the alert was issued by the New York Office of Emergency Management.

Messages appear on phones just like texts and are accompanied by a loud alarm. The phone also vibrates, which the FCC says helps people with hearing or vision disabilities.