The cellphones of northern Utah residents woke many people up early Sunday morning.
At 3:33 a.m., an Amber Alert rang out, simply saying “UT AMBER Alert.” It didn’t include information on a missing child or how to help spot the alleged abductor. The girl was later found safe, but the alert, the third in six months with missing or vague information, left many frustrated.
On Nov. 20, Utahns received an emergency notification that read “Dial 511 for more information.” In late September, residents received an alert that read “gry Toyt.”
In response to the latest mishap, the state has decided to temporarily stop sending Amber Alerts to cellphones.
Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Department of Emergency Management, sent a news release saying that system only sent the message header and mistakenly did not send the message itself.
“We recognize that a cellphone alert at 3:33 a.m. has little chance of alerting the public to be on the lookout for a missing child,” Dougherty said. “We are turning off the Wireless Emergency Alert for AMBER Alerts until a complete review of the system and its history in Utah.”
He added, “The Department of Public Safety will continue to review policies and procedures. We will work to complete more offline testing of the system until we can have perfect confidence in the system. Until that time, we will continue only sending AMBER Alerts directly to law enforcement, the news media, to social media, and to alert.utah.gov.”
However, several people reported receiving another Amber Alert hours after the service was halted, with the same barely-there message as the early morning text that went out.
Utah Public Safety tweeted that they have done everything on their end.
“Sometimes, a message is repeated to certain phones," UPS said in the tweet. "We have no control over that. It may be a carrier issue or a hardware/software issue on a phone.”
Early Sunday, South Salt Lake police used the state’s Amber Alert system to help find a missing 4-year-old girl and sent over as much information as possible, Capt. Danielle Croyle said, but it got lost somewhere on the back end. When a case meets the criteria for an Amber Alert, the information is sent to the Utah Department of Emergency Management and funneled through the Utah Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The full Amber Alert, however, still found its way to local media.
“Technology is a fabulous tool, but sometimes technology doesn’t work,” Croyle said.
When Croyle noticed the phone alerts didn’t have any information at all, she contacted Emergency Management. She was told she could submit a new Amber Alert to try to distribute the missing information, but the initial alert would have to be canceled. Croyle didn’t want to create more confusion, so she took to social media instead.
“I understand [people’s complaints] completely — they get the alarm, but they didn’t get any details,” Croyle said. “Sometimes, that’s what happens with technology. [The Utah Department of Emergency Management] are good partners with us. It’s an essential tool, but there is some stuff that needs to be resolved. But that’s why we do contingency plans and contingency social media and contingency media releases to get that information out.”
In this case, the Amber Alert was sent out to help locate a 4-year-old child who was abducted by her biological mother, who is not her legal guardian. The alert was canceled at 6 a.m. after the child had been located in Salt Lake City unharmed. The mother has been arrested and is being held at the jail.
Although there are issues with the system, Croyle said the end goal is still to get as much information out as possible to help locate the suspect and get the victim home safely.
“We want to, obviously, limit the confusion and the frustration because we want people in our community to utilize this tool — we want them to have this information,” Croyle said. “… Even though people may not have received the information, we are pushing it out to different platforms. If this does happen again, we would encourage people to look to their local news or look at their social media.”