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AMBER Alert system on pause after empty message in middle of night

Samples of the AMBER Alert sent out April 19 that mistakenly had no additional information included in the notification. For some Utahns several notifications were sent out as well, adding to the confusion surrounding the system. The Utah Department of Public Safety said it will pause these alerts until a thorough investigation is completed. (Cami Mondeaux, KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The Utah Department of Public Safety paused its AMBER Alert system for now, after some Utahns woke up to a 3:33 a.m. alert with no additional information attached.

The South Salt Lake Police Department issued the alert early Sunday morning through its local dispatch center, asking for public help in a missing child abduction case. Authorities canceled the alert at 6:08 a.m. after finding the child safe.

However, the original alert had no information attached — it just included a message header.

How Wireless Emergency Alerts work

“Because we can’t test WEAs [Wireless Emergency Alerts] in a demonstration mode, we didn’t see this issue until now,” said Joe Dougherty, of the Utah Division of Emergency Management. “The code for these alerts has been updated to ensure both the header and the message are sent in the future.”

The Utah DPS announced later that afternoon they would pause AMBER Alerts sent through the Wireless Emergency Alert system until it can thoroughly investigate what went wrong and how to fix it. Until then, the department will continue sending alerts to the police, news outlets, social media and its website. 

The authority to send AMBER Alerts rests within the jurisdiction of local law enforcement to quickly notify the community. The state government owns the software.

AMBER Alert system on pause

Typically, these statewide messages come through the WEA system — the same system used for Gov. Gary Herbert’s travel self-declaration form system, introduced April 9.

That system was turned off Monday after glitches sent repeated messages to residents who remained inside their homes — yet were alerted they had crossed state lines.

This isn’t the first time Utahns received an AMBER Alert with no helpful information. Similar situations occurred in September and November of last year.

While the department said it continues to investigate past issues, Sunday’s alert represented the first they’ve sent since those initial mistakes.

Looking ahead

Dougherty said the department recognizes the different aspects that went wrong with this particular message, noting they’re working on addressing those. This includes the middle-of-the-night disturbance and some Utahns receiving several notifications of the same message.

“Some phones received the alert multiple times,” he said. “This is something that happens with these types of alerts and we have no control over it.”

Until those mistakes can be fixed, Dougherty said the WEA system for AMBER alerts will be paused until they can conduct a complete review of the system and its history in Utah.

Despite the kinks, Dougherty said the system succeeded in other areas — like its updates on its website and Twitter feed — keeping the community informed on the developments of the alert. Those methods will remain in order despite the WEA system being put on pause.