Officials send mass cell phone alert in New York bomber manhunt

Millions of New Yorkers were jolted by the ringing of a mass alert sent to cellphones across the area Monday morning to notify the public of the suspect they were seeking in connection to the weekend bombing in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

The alert was sent shortly before 8 a.m. local time as part of the nation’s Wireless Emergency Alert system, which is designed to allow authorized government agencies to issues alerts directly through cellphone carriers. It included a distinct high-pitched tone and a vibration, both repeated twice. 

The alert said, “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. Call 9-1-1 if seen.” It did not include a picture of the suspect but instead told the public to “see media for pic.”

It’s believed to be the first time the alert system was used for an active manhunt. 

Rahami was taken into custody in Linden, New Jersey, after a shootout with police about three hours later.

The system was designed to circulate information on extreme weather, threatening local emergencies, child abductions (Amber Alerts), and presidential announcements during national emergencies, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

The alerts are sent free of charge and do not count towards users’ texting plans. 

The alert prompted a flurry of reactions on social media from individuals jolted by the unusual text:

More than 100 cell carriers, including all of the largest carriers, participate in the emergency alert system, which started in 2012 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. 

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    Shanika Gunaratna covers science and technology for CBSNews.com