Continuing glitches put Amber Alert at risk

The News TribuneMay 13, 2014 

Cellphone screenshot shows the May 5 Amber Alert. The customer received it 26 times.

COURTESY PHOTO

The statewide Amber Alert system experienced another big problem last week — bad news to anyone concerned about the welfare of children.

The system — which sends text messages to people’s cellphones in addition to posting alerts on freeway signs — is an important tool in locating children who have been abducted. Of the five Amber Alerts sent before March in this state, two were responsible for children being found. The same wireless messaging system can provide alerts about severe weather or imminent threats such as tsunamis and flash floods.

But the system has been plagued with problems in Washington. Last week, an Amber Alert regarding an abducted child was delayed by a computer problem at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. When it did get sent out, many cellphone users received multiple text messages — one woman reported getting 75 — that clogged their inboxes. Others kept getting messages after the child had been safely recovered by authorities.

The reason for the delay apparently has been identified and fixed. But so far the cause for the multiple messages is unknown. That’s unacceptable; if the problem can’t be tracked down, how can it be prevented from happening again?

Earlier alerts have had problems, too. Some severe weather warnings were sent out too broadly, and an April 2013 Amber Alert went out at 3:30 in the morning. Cellphones blared, waking up people who wondered what they were supposed to do at that time of day about a child missing from Kalispell, Montana. System operators learned from that and now don’t send Amber Alerts out after 10 p.m. or before 6 a.m.

That kind of improvement is important. If the alert system doesn’t work correctly, people might change their phone settings to stop receiving the messages — and reduce the chances that missing children will be found or that disasters can be avoided.

People must understand that there will be wrinkles in any new system; this one was only launched in 2012. The system’s reliability and value depend on cellphone customers getting the messages. Maybe only one person will be in a position to spot the vehicle mentioned in the Amber Alert. If that person has unsubscribed, a child’s life could be on the line.

That’s something to think about before disabling your phone’s alert capability.

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