Best Practices for Communicating AMBER Alerts™ to Your Citizens

Written by Ryan Strait

It’s every parent’s nightmare: their child is missing. Abducted. As seconds tick away, panicked parents fear their child is being taken farther and father away from home, and that the odds of their child being returned safely are growing smaller and smaller. Leveraging the power of our nations’ communities and their engaged, concerned citizens, since its inception in 1996, the national AMBER Alert program has proven to be a successful system for helping reunite abducted children with their parents. As of December 2016, AMBER Alerts have successfully recovered 857 children. To learn how to successfully use the AMBER Alert system to communicate potential abductions in your community, familiarize yourself with the reach of the AMBER Alert system, and our communication best practices.

The AMBER Alert System

The AMBER Alert Program is a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry, to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases. The AMBER Alert System was created in 1996 when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children. “AMBER” stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. The name was also chosen to honor the memory of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas. Today, the AMBER Alert system is being used in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Indian country, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 22 other countries. 

The AMBER Alert System and the Wireless Emergency Alert System

As of January 1, 2013, AMBER Alerts are automatically sent via the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system to millions of WEA-enabled cell phone users if they are in the geographic area where an alert has been issued. WEA is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It distributes notifications of imminent emergencies from authorized federal, state, local, and tribal government agencies to individuals with WEA-capable devices. Unlike text messages, WEA messages receive priority over other data sent to cell phones so that they are sent more quickly.

WEA Future Enhancements

In September of 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved improvements to the WEA system to enhance the information state and local authorities may send their citizens. The changes include requiring wireless providers to support inclusion of embedded phone numbers and URLs in all WEA alerts, and allowing users to link to pictures and phone numbers in AMBER Alert urgent child-abduction bulletins. The new FCC rules are planned to be implemented by March 2019.

AMBER Alert Communication Best Practices

What follows are our best practices to help local governments effectively leverage this powerful system and help bring children safely home to their parents and their communities.

  • AMBER Alert Criteria. These alerts should only be issued for abducted children that meet the AMBER Alert criteria and should only be used in the most serious cases. Overuse of the systesm could result in the public becoming desensitized to notifications when they are issued.
  • Citizen Education. Citizens can choose to opt-out of receiving AMBER Alerts. To make the system as effective as possible, emergency managers should educate their communities about the important role each individual citizen plays in the safe return of abducted children. By reinforcing the power of the collective community, citizens will be more attentive and responsive to received alerts.
  • Expect to Hear from the Media. After you issue an AMBER Alert, prepare to hear from local, regional, and/or state media outlets. Reporters and media publications will want as much information from your administration as possible so they can help to spread potentially life-saving information throughout your community and surrounding regions. Make sure you have a crisis communication plan in place, in advance, to streamline your communication efforts.

Click here to learn how to implement a crisis communication plan.

  • Write Concise, but Impactful Messages. Space and characters are limited when writing AMBER Alerts, but remember that the system may still be relatively new and unfamiliar to some citizens. Include language that your alert is relative to an abducted child. If you simply state the make and model of the suspect’s vehicle, or a description of the suspect, some may not realize that the message is in response to an abduction. Communicating that your alert is relative to a missing child will lend the gravity necessary for citizens to respond appropriately.
  • Send AMBER Alerts to Multiple Channels. While the AMBER Alert program and WEA platform are powerful channels, you’ll want to leverage every resource available to help reunite families with their missing children. Using a government notification system, like CivicReady, that leverages the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), will allow you to send your alert message to a wide variety of subscribed citizens and national alert systems with a single step.

Download IPAWS Product Sheet