Can Wireless Emergency Amber Alerts Be Made More Effective?

Wireless Emergency Alerts are the alerts that use the IPAWS system and are broadcast to all newer mobile phones in a target area.  They’re intended for imminent emergencies with a high probability of loss of life or property, but they are also specifically enabled for Amber Alerts, which notify the public of an abducted child.

The concern we have with WEA-based Amber Alerts is how cryptic they are.  Here’s a recent one:

Emergency alert Sampson County, NC AMBER Alert: LIC/KHX-728 (SC) 2001 Brown Buick Century Type:Amber Alert

Last year, California residents experienced this kind of frustration deciphering an AMBER Alert WEA message.  As reported by the LA Times, residents across the state received a confusing alert in the middle of the night, containing only the ambiguous message: Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert. UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.

We asked a few friends and none of them were 100% sure what an AMBER Alert was exactly.  Most thought it was about a missing child, rather than an abducted one.  So a cryptic description of the vehicle in which the child is suspected of being abducted may not be enough information.

WEA messages are limited to 90 characters and so are limited in what they can say.  But – as a Sprint engineer once pointed out to us – there’s nothing that prevents sending a second message.  And since the message goes out only to a specified geographical area, we wonder if the text would be re-written.

For example this re-write uses one less character and doesn’t depend on people understanding what an Amber Alert is:

Emergency alert Abducted child: Report this car: 2001 Brown Buick Century SC Lic/KHX-728 Type:Amber Alert

And here’s a version that uses a 2-part message:

  1. Emergency alert Child abducted in Sampson County, NC. Look for older Brown Buick Century. Type:Amber Alert
  2. Emergency alert cont’d: SC lic plate: KHX-728  If seen, call 911. Type:Amber Alert

And another, using information about the child:

  1. Emergency alert Child abducted in Sampson County, NC. Boy, age 2, white (Jeremiah Hughes) Type:Amber Alert
  2. Emergency alert Call 911 if you see older Brown Buick Century. SC lic plate: KHX-728   Type:Amber Alert

We have no idea which of these is more effective or if there’s a better re-write possible.  But as professional communicators, it seems to us that there should be research to determine best practices in this area.