Frequent Amber Alerts prompt change in push alert philosophy

The push notification for the Hammond Amber Alert was sent even though there was no suspect vehicle license plate information.
The push notification for the Hammond Amber Alert was sent even though there was no suspect vehicle license plate information.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Cell phones across Indiana erupted in loud alert tones three times in the last nine days as three Amber Alert push notifications were sent out. But, there were actually four Amber Alerts in that same time period. The first Amber Alert, the one out of Allen County, did not get a push notification.

“Anyone driving down the road who’s not watching the news or who is listening to a CD or satellite radio is not getting any information at all because we’re being too picky on what we’re sending out. We’re not giving them an opportunity to assist us,” Ron Rayl, the interim director of the Consolidated Communications Partnership of Fort Wayne and Allen County (CCP), said.

Indiana State Police are the gatekeepers of issuing statewide Amber Alerts on behalf of local departments. They then have the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) send out the cell phone push notifications through a third party system.

State police spokesman Capt. Dave Bursten told 15 Finds Out that a full six-digit license plate number of the suspect vehicle was needed to qualify for a push alert. Allen County’s Amber Alert had the suspect vehicle make, model and color, but only a partial license plate number had been confirmed, so no push alert was sent.

“That doesn’t make logical sense to me,” Rayl said. “John Q Citizen will not remember all six digits of the plate. They will remember a vehicle description and some combination of letter and numbers that draw their attention to that vehicle. State police still issued the Amber Alert with the tan vehicle information, but they just didn’t give it a push, so a thousand people didn’t know anything about it because they’re driving down the road and not watching the news.”

Bursten explained NCMEC asks to have a full license plate number before sending out push notification to cut down on erroneous tips.

“Less specific information gets less specific leads and can generate more leads that are of little value,” Bursten said. “If we’re getting massive amounts of generalized tips, one of those tips may be the right one, but we have no way to know which one and you run out of manpower chasing down all the tips. And you have to wait for an investigator to finish doing one of the bad tips before getting to what could be a good tip. Does that serve anybody? That’s a time killer right there.”

Rayl disagreed.

“I would rather have bad tips than no tips. With nothing, you get nothing. With no push, you get nothing. Not doing a full push on our [Amber Alert] was wrong,” he said.

Three Amber Alerts all had push notifications sent out.
Three Amber Alerts all had push notifications sent out.

Allen County’s Amber Alert was Monday, September 26. The next day there was another Amber Alert and then there were two more Amber Alerts issued on October 3. Two of those three alerts did have full license plates confirmed and push notifications were sent out. But the first alert on October 3, was from Hammond and there was no license plate information at all. The vehicle description was even slightly vague. But, a push notification was still sent out.

“That’s because we do re-assess every time,” Bursten said. “As we pushed the issue more because we had three of these in quick succession, we said to NCMEC, is [the plate information] a set-in-stone requirement? They said no. We said here’s the information we have and we still would like to do a push alert. They said here are the things you need to think about. We did think about those things and we still want to do it. And they did it.”

Bursten can understand how some people in Allen County were confused and upset to see that a notification was sent for Hammond when it was denied for Allen County.

“Each case we look at on its own merits and as you do things more frequently, you tend to get better at it,” he said. “I would submit to you that we do not want to become perfect at issuing Amber Alerts because that means we’re doing them way too frequently.”

There’s no guarantee that push notifications will be sent out without license plate information in future Amber Alerts, but it is possible, Bursten said.

“It’s hard to say hypothetically because each Amber Alert stands on its own of what’s available and not available and how at risk the child or children may be. It’s possible. I can’t give you an absolute answer,” he said.

The children in the Amber Alerts with the push notifications were all found safe. While it’s tempting to speculate, everyone agreed it’s impossible to know if a push alert would have saved the lives of the kids killed from Allen County.

“Not that we could guarantee we could save a life, but we needed that information put out. We can’t quantify that this would have helped, but we’ll never know because the information didn’t go out,” Rayl said.