Amber alerts and the boy who cried “wolf”

By Dave Menendez
Wednesday, February 25, 2015, at 10:00 PM

Summary: In principle, alerting people to missing children using cell phones seems like a good idea, but people won’t react well to a jarring alarm in the middle of the night that they can’t reasonably respond to.

Apparently there was an Amber alert around 1:30 AM last night in New Jersey. I don’t know anything about the specific situation, except that they have since found the child in Massachusetts, but I mostly want to talk about the specific notification system. This Amber alert utilized the FCC’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system, meaning that a lot of people’s cell phones turned on their disaster sirens in the middle of the night. That lead to some grumbling the next day, which in turn lead to some chiding from the South Jersey Times editorial board.

Everyone uses their cellphones to chat with friends, text, send party photos or order pizzas.

They can also be used to save a life—and locate a missing child like little Elinor.


The next time an Amber Alert sounds, don’t curse it. Don't ignore it. It all could be a matter of life or death.

If you read the comments (not generally advisable), you’ll see plenty of people mocking those who were upset at being awakened by an alert about a situation they couldn’t do anything about. Why worry about your precious “beauty sleep” when there’s a missing kid out there?

This is not a good argument. Yes, the consequences of missing an alert when you are in a position to do something about it far outweigh the inconvenience of being jarred out of sleep by a blaring alarm1 in the middle of the night, but we also need to consider frequencies. How often are these situations likely to happen? I suspect the latter is far more common than the former.

Contrary to claims by the department which manages them, studies show that Amber alerts are not particularly effective. Some have called for their elimination altogether. I’m not sure we need to go that far, but I think the bar for midnight alerts has to be pretty high. Some people will be okay with it, but others will just disable Amber alerts entirely. I did so myself, after a similar incident last year. I’ve left on the natural disaster/severe weather warnings, but as soon as they stop being used only for severe circumstances they’ll go off as well.

I mentioned the boy who cried wolf in the title, even though it’s not an exact match for the situation. You can imagine a variation where the boy yells whenever a wolf gets within ten miles of the sheep, which will probably work out similarly: after a few responses, the townsfolk with realize that there’s nothing useful they can do in response to a distant wolf and stop responding. Then one day the wolves will actually get to the sheep and the flock will be lost, because no one came to assist the boy.

We usually blame the boy for the loss of the sheep, since his indiscriminate warnings lead to the townsfolk not responding when they were needed. Some blame the townsfolk as well, since they could have prevented the loss of the flock. But their mistake was not ignoring the warning: they made a reasonable judgement that it wasn’t worth responding to an alert they probably couldn’t do anything about. Their real mistake was failing to fix their lookout system once they found some problems with it.

  1. “Jarring” doesn’t really do it justice. The WEA requires a “unique attention signal”, and Apple came up with a pretty alarming one.