Just before 8 AM on Monday morning, phones across New York City and the wider New York metropolitan area erupted in unison, thanks to a massive law enforcement alert announcing Afghan-born U.S. citizen Ahmad Khan Rahamia as a person of interest wanted in connection with the explosion that rocked Manhattan on Saturday night.
Nobody who received the alert had ever seen anything like it.
First time I have received an emergency alert like this on my phone pic.twitter.com/UuZ9RVndg8
— Elizabeth Plank (@feministabulous) September 19, 2016
An NYPD spokesperson told Fusion that the alert was sent by the FBI. A FBI spokesperson in New York referred a request for comment to FBI headquarters in Washington, which did not respond to messages. The FBI spokesperson in New York said it was the first time she had received such an alert too. Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed during an interview with WCBS radio that Monday’s push was the city’s first use of the Office of Emergency Management’s alert system to send this type of message.
The message was sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which is normally used to release notices about severe weather and amber alerts. Local governments and federal agencies can use the system for any "alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life," according to the Federal Communications Commission. Messages are sent to any phone connected to a specific cell tower. More than 21,000 emergency alerts have been sent out around the country since the system launched in 2012, Vice reported last month.
But the alerts are limited to just 90 characters, and messages are text-only. Agencies sending them can't even include a web link for people to click and learn more information, which leads to awkward phrases like "see media for pic." The FCC wants to make longer alerts possible, but phone companies have resisted that change.
While the intent of this alert may have been to mobilize the public for what is shaping up to be a massive manhunt, the effect of everyone's smartphones suddenly beeping and vibrating out en masse was decidedly less organized—particularly for a city already frazzled from the bombing itself.
Even international figures in town for the United Nations' General Assembly were alerted.
Some on Twitter were taken by the (creepy) futuristic vibe created by mass smartphone pushes.
Every phone on my train just went off with an extreme alert. Felt like something outta a scifi novel. Absolutely crazy
— Steve March (@StevenMarch) September 19, 2016
Others were concerned about the potential for racist and Islamophobic backlash.
In typical New York fashion, many were simply annoyed by the whole thing.
Or just ignored it entirely.
Or used it as an excuse to play out personal spy fantasies.
This isn't the first time the alert system was used following a suspected terrorist attack. During the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber in 2013, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent an alert to Bostonites telling them to shelter in place.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.
Rafi Schwartz is a reporter based in North Carolina. When in doubt he’ll have the soup. He can be reached at Rafi.Schwartz@fusion.net