Why was there a failure in Amber Alert mobile notifications?

Posted at 5:49 PM, Jul 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-12 10:40:25-04

Why weren't mobile notifications sent to Arizona cell phone users alerting them of the three missing siblings out of Marana who were kidnapped?

"We'll use whatever device we have that's going to help us find these children or that child alive," said Art Brooks, the Arizona Amber Alert chairman.

Most of the Amber Alert system functioned correctly. Messages went out on highway message boards, broadcast media, emails and texts. 

But Monday, the cell phones were silent. No emergency tones sounded with the important message. ABC15 asked why the system failed on Monday evening in activating the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

"In all my years of doing this since 2002, this is the first time we run across this," Brooks said. "So I now think we have something we need to talk about."

ABC15 learned the Arizona Department of Public Safety is responsible for putting out Amber Alerts. They pass the information on to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That organization then puts out short messages to cell phone users through an agreement with certain wireless carriers.

Arizona officials originally told ABC15 there was a software problem. They say this was because the suspect car involved in the Amber Alert did not have a regular license plate.

"For some reason, there's confusion when a paper plate is on a car," Brooks said. "In some cases, there's no number there and the WEA system will not respond unless it has a true number for that vehicle." 

But the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says there is no glitch.

"It was not a paper plate issue, we certainly will take whatever information the agency wants and will push that," Bob Lowery, the vice president for the missing children division of the NCMEC, said. "We don't make that decision here at the national center, we take our direction from our partners at the state level."

Lowery said there was never a request submitted with them to active the Wireless Emergency Alert system. 

DPS sent a statement to ABC15 that said they have "the responsibility to activate the Amber Alert system after information is submitted from the investigating law enforcement agency. When the required information is submitted, the system automatically sends an emergency notification to cell phones indicating that a child is in danger."

They said they are investigating what improvements can be made. 

They also said they were unaware before Tuesday that they could submit "0000" in place of an actual license plate number, and that submitting four zeros in their system would engage the emergency alert. 

WEA alerts automatically come as push notifications on smartphones sold after 2013. Users have an option to change phone settings to opt out. Additionally, people can sign up on the Arizona Amber Alert website to get the messages by email or text.