Washington Amber Alert blows up cellphone inboxes with dozens of messages

Staff writerMay 6, 2014 

Screenshots from a News Tribune reader who said she received Monday's Amber Alert 26 times.

COURTESY SCREENSHOTS

The cell phone alert system that’s been troubled since its rollout in 2012 had issues again Monday.

The statewide Amber Alert for a 6-year-old boy taken from his grandmother’s Auburn home reached some cell phones once, and others up to about 30 times. 

Delayed and repeated Amber Alerts have been an ongoing issue with the national system that sends the emergency notifications, said Washington State Patrol Amber Alert coordinator Carri Gordon.

“I’m essentially begging people to not turn it off permanently,” she said. 

The most recent incident ended with sheriff’s deputies arrested the boy’s 34-year-old mother, who allegedly held the child at knifepoint, when they found the pair on U.S. 2 just after noon Monday.

It was unclear whether the Amber Alert was responsible for the boy’s return, but the King County Sheriff’s Office said tips from the public were.

The number of notifications prompted a surge of comments on The News Tribune Facebook page. 

“I got about 30-plus after he was found,” Tessa Luck said.

“I’m turning them off,” reader Tim Wise posted. “Facebook and Twitter are more reliable.”

“... is it really that difficult?” David Snyder wrote.

“I received over 75! And 50 of those were after 2 a.m.!” Suellen Farrell said. “But, glad he was found.”

“I don’t mind the inconvenience if it helps a missing child be found,” Megan Ernst Kilpatrick commented.

One reader said the first alert his wife got woke him up at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.

About 30 repeats was the upper end of the complaints Gordon received. Most people who called her said they got between five and 10 of the identical alerts, she said.

Monday’s trouble might have gotten more attention than previous repeats, Gordon said, because the Amber Alert was at a peak time of day. It reached phones about 11:15 a.m., though that was about an hour after the information was sent. 

The delay was caused by a glitch in the computer systems at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which helps broadcast the wireless Amber Alerts, Gordon said. Officials there told her they thought the alert had gone out, but when they checked an hour later, they found it hadn’t. 

Since then, Gordon was told, the center has identified and fixed the glitch.

What’s causing the repeated alerts has yet to be pinpointed.

Either the cell towers that send the notifications or the phones that receive them seem to not be recognizing when a device already has received an alert, Gordon said.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” she said. “It’s supposed to go out one time, hit a device one time and that’s it.”

Repeated alerts aren’t the only mix-up with the system since it rolled out in the Pacific Northwest. Some notifications have been sent too broadly, or mistakenly before dawn. A flash flood alert intended for Puerto Rico landed on some Washington phones in June.

Unless a cell phone user opts out of the system, the alerts are automatically sent to devices capable of receiving them (most newer-model phones are). 

Gordon said she recommends people getting repeated alerts change their phone settings to temporarily disable the alerts, for between 24 or 48 hours. Then change the setting back to “opt back in,” she said. Users who need help changing the setting should contact their cell phone provider.

“We want the public to get these when they come out,” Gordon said of the alerts. “Hopefully as things evolve with the system, (repeated alerts) shouldn’t happen as much.”

The State Patrol has been keeping an informal record of the issues to relay to cell phone providers, she said, adding that the problem spans multiple major carriers.

The Amber Alerts are sent as part of the national Wireless Emergency Alert system, which started sending emergency notifications to Washington residents’ cell phones in December 2012.

The partnership of cellphone carriers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communication Commission and others lets authorized agencies send alerts of imminent threats, such as tsunamis, as well as Amber Alerts for missing children. Presidential notifications be sent as well, but President Obama hasn’t done so yet. 

The alerts are separate from text messaging, which allows the messages to be sent despite network congestion during a disaster.

Weather alerts have saved lives across the country, officials say. And as of March in Washington, two of the five Amber Alerts sent to cell phones were directly responsible for the children being found.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268

alexis.krell@thenewstribune.com

www.thenewstribune.com/crime-news

@amkrell

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