SOUTH SALT LAKE, Utah, April 19, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — Lt. Gov Spencer Cox issued an apology Sunday morning after an early morning Amber Alert was sent out at 3:33 a.m. with no actionable information attached to it.
The Amber Alert was issued by South Salt Lake police who were searching for a 24-year-old woman and a missing 4-year-old girl.
Cox said in a Facebook post: “I’m sorry for those that were awakened early this morning. An empty Amber Alert at 3:30 a.m. in a non-custodial interference case should never happen. We’ve instructed Public Safety to pause alerts to investigate and make changes necessary to prevent it from happening again. Other alerting methods (to law enforcement, news media and social media) will continue.”
A news release from the Utah Department of Public Safety said: “Following an Amber Alert that did not include complete information early Sunday, the Department of Public Safety will pause the sending future Amber Alerts through the Wireless Emergency Alert system. We are 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 will still be available for evacuation orders, hazardous materials warnings, or other civil emergency messages.
This is a pause only on sending Amber Alerts as a Wireless Emergency Alert to 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 news release said. The software that sends those alerts is owned by state government.
By policy, Amber Alerts have been sent statewide to mobile phones via Wireless Emergency Alert, to the news media and are posted to alert.utah.gov.
Early Sunday morning, the South Salt Lake Police Department issued an Amber Alert through their local dispatch center, the Valley Emergency Communications Center, to ask for the public’s help to find the child. The Amber Alert was canceled at 6:08 a.m.
The alert mistakenly included no useful information. “We recognize that this has happened with Amber Alerts in September and in November,” the news release said. “Over the past several months, we have been working to improve Amber Alert notifications. This was the first Amber Alert since our efforts to fix past problems.”
What didn’t work and what officials are doing to address issues
- When the information was sent, the software didn’t include the WEA message, just a message header. Because officials can’t test WEAs in a demonstration mode, the officials didn’t see this issue until now. The code for these alerts has been updated to ensure both the header and the message are sent in the future.
- Some phones received the alert multiple times. This is something that happens with these types of alerts, officials 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,” the news release said. “We are turning off the Wireless Emergency Alert for Amber Alerts until we do a complete review of the system and its history in Utah.”
What worked well
In past alerts, the public had no access to detailed information if the alert message was blank.
- Last year, officials created alert.utah.gov, which includes current Amber Alert information, as long as an alert is active. The site is built to include photos of the suspect and victim, as well as information provided by the local law enforcement agency. The site stayed up and active and was automatically updated when the alert was canceled.
- Information about Amber Alerts is automatically sent to the news media with pictures and a script that can be published to news websites quickly. News media partners received the information.
- Officials built the alerting software to automatically tweet Amber Alert information and a link to alert.utah.gov from @UtahDPS and @UtahEmergency twitter accounts. This worked.
- The system also automatically sends a tweet notifying our followers that the alert was canceled. This also worked, officials said.
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,” the statement 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.”
Gephardt Daily will update the story as more information becomes available.