Cell Phone Alerts Help Catch Terror Suspect

BALTIMORE (WJZ)– More than a dozen police and government agencies in Maryland, including Baltimore, can send alerts to your cell phone that can turn an entire city or region into eyes and ears for investigators on the hunt for a terror suspect.

We’re used to the blaring alerts on our cell phones when severe weather strikes and for amber alerts for missing children, but in New York City Monday, for the first time, the wireless emergency system sent out a warning to be on the lookout for a terror suspect.

It took about 15 minutes for officials to agree on the message: “Wanted: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-year-old male. See media for pic. Call 911 if seen.”

Within 3 hours, police captured Rahami, thanks to a citizen who knew the description.

“I even came out of the store and started yelling at the cop, ‘He’s the guy, he’s the guy you are looking for!'” said Harinder Bains, a bar owner.

There are limitations, a message can only be up to 90 characters and the current system can’t accommodate pictures or links.

While some worry it could lead to profiling, officials call it a success.

“The alert system is very helpful to the police department and the FBI and it gets everybody involved. It’s that sense of shared responsibility,” said James O’Neil, New York City Commissioner.

Maryland sends out wireless emergency alerts from inside the Emergency Management Headquarters in Reisterstown.

Authorities are careful about what they broadcast.

“We worry that people get desensitized, so if you hear one of these buzzing alerts, you know it’s something important,” said Chas Eby of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

There is a list of the 14 different agencies authorized to use the system in Maryland. They can target the alerts down to specific neighborhoods.

“It’s short and sweet. What we want to do is get information out that people can take action on,” said Eby.

In a terror attack, other areas could follow New York’s lead. Turning cell phones into digital wanted message boards, pushing you to help police catch a terrorist.

The FCC will vote next week on whether to add pictures and links, but wireless carriers fear that could jam the system. Carriers do support increasing the number of characters to 360 and adding Spanish language alerts to the system.

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