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Why Montana's AMBER Alert test did not reach one-third of phones in the state

Cell Phone
Posted at 8:04 AM, Jan 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-23 10:04:22-05

HELENA - The Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) tested the statewide AMBER Alert system on Jan. 13, and although DOJ officials said the test was successful on their end, an estimated one-third of phones in the state did not get the alert.

AMBER Alerts are sent out in situations when a child has been abducted under life-threatening circumstances, and there is enough information to request help from the public in searching for the child or suspect. When issued, it’s important that as many people as possible get the alert.

“The Washington child homicide study that was done indicated that a child that was abducted and murdered was murdered within the first three hours,” Montana Department of Justice AMBER Alert coordinator Jennifer Viets said. “So, if we’re looking for a child under life-threatening circumstances and we activate an amber alert, we really need help trying to find that child.”

In order to get AMBER Alerts to cell phones, the Montana DOJ sends the alert through the CodeRED system. CodeRED then sends a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who then will send the alert to cell phone service providers to push it out through cell phone towers in the requested geographic region.

The part of the process that the Montana DOJ is responsible for went smoothly during the AMBER Alert test on Jan. 13.

“We were really pleased with the outcome of the test,” Viets said. “We appreciate everybody’s participation.”

According to Montana DOJ statistics, 66% of phones in the state received the test alert. Viets said there are a number of reasons that the remaining one-third of phones did not get the alert.

The test alert was pushed out for 15 minutes, so if a phone was out of range of a cell tower during that 15-minute period, Viets said it would have missed the alert. In the case of an abducted child, that window is longer than 15 minutes.

“Typically we begin with a 24-hour period,” Viets said. “We’re hoping the child is found quickly, and most of the time, they are, but it can go for 24 hours.”

Another reason a phone might not have gotten the test AMBER Alert — settings. Viets said some phones have settings to block emergency alerts.

Finally, Viets said there could have just been a problem with the cell phone’s service provider.

“If someone did not get the alert, they should contact their carrier to try and determine why they didn’t get it, so we can make sure they get the next one,” Viets said.

Since Montana started pushing out AMBER Alerts in 2003, numbers show the alerts have been successful in locating abducted children. Viets said Montana has issued 54 AMBER Alerts for 76 children, and all 76 of those children have been located.

Montana’s most recent AMBER Alert was sent out in November 2021 for an infant that was inside a vehicle that was stolen. Viets said that child was rescued in less than 30 minutes after the AMBER Alert went out.

Along with AMBER Alerts getting sent to cell phones, the Montana DOJ partners with multiple organizations to get the alert sent out over television, radio, the Montana Department of Transportation’s 511 information line and through Montana Lottery’s 12,000 kiosks across the state.

“We have multiple ways we try and push an AMBER Alert out, we don’t just rely on one way of doing it to try and make sure we get the public helping us search for an abducted child,” Viets said.

The Montana DOJ’s CodeRED system also pushes alerts directly to the free CodeRED app which people can download to their phones.