Most of us have experienced it. Sitting at home, watching TV or maybe having a quiet dinner when suddenly your cell phone vibrates and emits a loud alarm noise. It’s an AMBER Alert.

The Washington State Patrol (WSP) has been using cellphone alerts since 2013, however not every AMBER Alert is distributed through phones. Why is that (a question we’ve been asked a lot)? WSP AMBER Alert Program Manager Carri Gordon says “Alerts are only pushed out to cell phones and highway signs when a vehicle is involved.” She explains this is because “Vehicles are easier to direct the public’s immediate attention to.  In the case of the highway signs, that’s what you’re likely to see first. The cell phone alerts only allow for 90 characters no photos so the vehicle is the easiest to describe within those limitations.”

What exactly is an AMBER Alert?

According to the AMBER Alert website, “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 goal of an AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child.”

In Washington State, the issuing of AMBER Alerts begins when a local law enforcement agency determines if an alert needs to go out. The local law enforcement agency will then activate the system by calling WSP dispatchers, who will enter the information and send it out via email, fax, and yes, sometimes through cellphones. The alert provides details concerning the child and the perpetrator (if known), including descriptive information. The AMBER Alert system utilizes the combined power of technology, the media, law enforcement, and the public. The ultimate goal of an AMBER Alert is to ensure the safe return of the child.

The Washington State Patrol’s Role

The WSP is the lead agency for the Washington State AMBER Alert plan (you can read more about that here). Our primary role with AMBER Alerts is to distribute the information as quickly as possible. Dispatchers play an important role in not only issuing the actual alert, but also taking tips and calls from citizens.

How long does it take to issue an AMBER Alert

Normally an Amber Alert takes just minutes to activate. However, every case is unique. At the very most, it can take up to 30 minutes to send out the initial alert. After the alert goes out, agency partners like the Washington State Department of Transportation and Emergency Management, will then activate the emergency alert signs you see over the freeway and the alerts that come through your phone.

What to do if your child goes missing

If your child goes missing, you should immediately call 911. After you have reported your child missing to law enforcement, call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). More information about available resources can be found at

Next, look around your home for clues to your child’s possible whereabouts of destination of travel. There could be clues in the home that may lead to the finding of your child.

Be ready for the police when law enforcement arrives and be prepared to provide the following information:

  • a detailed description
  • a recent photo of the child
  • a description of the clothing worn by the child at the time of abduction
  • a description of the abductor
  • a description of the vehicle and the direction of flight
  • Write down all the descriptive information you can about your child. This should include all descriptors, names, nicknames

Child Safety Tips

  • It’s important to have an updated photo of your child at all times. If you’re ever in a situation where your child goes missing, having that photo ready and easily accessible will help law enforcement distribute that information quickly.
  • Time is of the essence. Law enforcement agencies want to get AMBER Alert information out as soon as possible. “Time is so critical” Gordon says, adding “We need to act quickly and bring these kids home.” So if you think you saw the child or the vehicle or suspect involved, do not hesitate to call. You could have the critical piece of information that’s been missing.
  • Strangers aren’t always strangers. Gordon says it’s important to teach your kids the importance of communicating anytime they feel uncomfortable around anyone! With that being said, it is important to realize parental abduction is a real and serious threat. Gordon explains parents can pose serious bodily injury or death to a child as well.
  • Online threats can come from many different angles. It’s important that you never disclose any personal information online.

Always Improving

The Amber Alert system is constantly evolving to ensure it is effective and efficient. Changes have been made to better communicate with the public. One such change came about after the agency received comments regarding Amber Alert phone text messages at off-hours. The WSP has corrected this issue by installing a 7:00 am to 10:00 pm rule for the cell phone alert portion of the system. However, it’s still important to realize the AMBER Alert system only works if everyone pays attention.

Gordon went on to explain in April 2013, the WSP shared an AMBER Alert issued by the State of Montana. A Washington resident woke up, read his alert, and went back to bed. When he left for work a few hours later, he walked out of his apartment complex and saw the vehicle in the parking lot. He immediately called 9-1-1 and the child was recovered in less than three hours, two states away.

While this is a success story, Gordon recognizes each AMBER Alert is a learning experience. The WSP is always asking how the agency can better distribute the information and do it faster. The WSP will begin using a new and more efficient AMBER Alert system in the coming months. More information will be released as the launch date approaches. Gordon says, “The public play a critical role when an AMBER alert is issued. Instead of law enforcement looking for an abducted child by themselves we now have thousands more extra eyes to help.”