Utah halting mobile phone Amber Alerts after early morning incomplete message

Stock image. | File photo, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY — Following an Amber Alert that did not include complete information early Sunday, the Utah Department of Public Safety will temporarily pause sending future Amber Alerts through the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system.

Stock photo of a couple looking at their mobile phones in bed. | Photo by OcusFocus/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The department said in a press release that it will be conducting a thorough review of the system. This means WEA will not be available for local law enforcement agencies to send Amber Alerts until a review of the system can be completed.

WEA is just one component of alerting. Various other systems will still be available, such as direct messages to law enforcement, news media, social media and to the alert.utah.gov website

WEA will still be available for evacuation orders, hazardous materials warnings or other civil emergency messages.

The pause also comes a week after an attempt to use the same system to contact motorists entering the state as a virtual checkpoint was stopped just three days after activation when people far from the border areas were alerted on their cell phones.

The authority to send Amber Alerts rests with local law enforcement to ensure the quickest alert can go out to the community. The software that sends those alerts is owned by state government.

By policy, Amber Alerts have been sent statewide to mobile phones via the Wireless Emergency Alert, to the news media and are posted to alert.utah.gov.

Undated photo in an undisclosed location of a small wireless base station tower. | Photo by Ta Nu, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Early Sunday morning, the South Salt Lake Police Department issued an Amber Alert through their local dispatch center, the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center, to ask for the public’s help to find a child abduction victim, who has since been located. The Amber Alert was canceled at 6:08 a.m.

The alert, which was sent statewide as a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) at 3:33 a.m., mistakenly included no useful information. The department acknowledges this also happened with Amber Alerts in September and in November. The department said it has been working over the past several months to improve Amber Alert notifications. This was the first Amber Alert since those efforts to fix past problems.

When the information was sent, the software didn’t include the WEA message, just a message header. “Because we can’t test WEAs in a demonstration mode, we didn’t see this issue until now,” the department said in a statement. The code for these alerts has been updated to ensure both the header and the message are sent in the future.

The department also noted that some phones received the alert multiple times. “This is something that happens with these types of alerts and we have no control over it,” the department said. “We recognize that a cell phone alert at 3:33 a.m. has little chance of alerting the public to be on the lookout for a missing child.”

Logo for the Utah Amber Alert system. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Public Safety, St. George News

The department said there was an improvement as in past alerts, the public had no access to detailed information if the alert message was blank. This time around information was featured on alert.utah.gov, though some reported the site either loading slowly or not at all. However, the department said the site stayed up and active and was automatically updated when the alert was canceled.

The Department of Public Safety said it 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,” the department said. “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.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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