AMBER Alerts and Wireless Emergency Alerts FAQ

AMBER Alerts and Wireless Emergency Alerts FAQ

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children offers answers to FAQs regarding AMBER Alerts and Wireless Emergency Alerts.

What is the AMBER Alert program?

The AMBER Alert program, also known as America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Plan, is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is a voluntary partnership between law enforcement agencies, broadcasters and transportation agencies to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases where there is enough information to make the alert effective.

Broadcasters use the Emergency Alert System to air a description of the abducted child, suspected abductor and any vehicle that may have been used in the abduction. The goal of an AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and safe recovery of the child.

It was created in 1996 in honor of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered near her home in Arlington, Texas. In the wake of this tragedy a young woman suggested that there should be emergency alerts sent to the public through the broadcasters when a child is abducted. She followed up with a letter, and that letter was used to create the first AMBER Plan. What began as a local effort has grown to include a system of AMBER Alert programs in every state that have been responsible for the successful recovery of 881 children.


What happens when an AMBER Alert is received?

AMBER Alerts have a unique audible signal and vibration. The unique signal and vibration are intended to indicate the urgency of the message and make the alert accessible to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities. The message will contain up to 90 characters and provide basic information.

In the case of an AMBER Alert, the message would indicate that an AMBER Alert has been issued for your area and, if possible, would include the license plate and other details about any vehicle that might have been used in the abduction.


How do AMBER Alerts work?

Once law enforcement has been notified about an abducted child, they will decide whether or not to issue an AMBER Alert based on their AMBER Alert program's criteria. They will provide the geographic area where the alert should be issued as well as any available information about the child, abductor or suspected vehicle used in the abduction.

Once issued, the alerts are distributed by broadcasters and transportation agencies. They are also sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which redistribute the alerts, per a request by the U.S. Department of Justice, to a network of secondary distributors that includes Internet service providers, digital billboards, truckers and others.


How are AMBER Alerts distributed to cell phones?

AMBER Alerts are distributed to cell phones as part of the AMBER Alert program's secondary distribution through the Wireless Emergency Alert program which is also known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System.


What is the Wireless Emergency Alert program?

The Wireless Emergency Alert program is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It distributes notifications from authorized federal, state, local and tribal government agencies that alert customers with capable devices of imminent threats to safety or an emergency situation. The messages are intended as a supplement to the existing Emergency Alert System, which broadcasts alerts over radio and television.

In addition to AMBER Alerts, the program includes National Weather Service, Presidential and imminent threat alerts. If you own a capable mobile device, you will automatically receive these alerts when you are in the geographic area where an alert has been issued.

Because the alerts are sent on a special wireless carrier channel called Cell Broadcast they are not affected by congestion on the voice or SMS text channels. The alerts are transmitted simultaneously to all mobile devices within range of the cellular carrier towers in the affected area. The system does not need to know your mobile number and it does not track your whereabouts; it simply broadcasts the alert, and any mobile devices that can "hear" the alert will display it to the user.


Will wireless customers be charged for Wireless Emergency Alert messages?

No. Wireless customers will not be charged for the receipt of these messages.


How do I know if my device is Wireless Emergency Alert capable?

To determine if your mobile device is capable of receiving the alerts, visit and look for a link for your wireless service provider where you will find a list of mobile devices that will receive the alerts on their network. Also, be sure to ask for a capable device the next time you acquire a new mobile device.

Look for this symbol on the box:

Wireless Emergency Alerts



Is it possible to adjust the volume of the Wireless Emergency Alert audible signal?

If a wireless device is set to vibrate only, users will not hear the audible signal from a Wireless Emergency Alert message. For additional information about adjusting the volume of a specific device or opting out of receiving the alerts, wireless customers should contact their individual wireless service providers.


Where can I go to receive more information if I receive an AMBER Alert on my cell phone?

If you are notified through a Wireless Emergency Alert/Commercial Mobile Alert System message that there is an AMBER Alert in your area, you can consult local media or visit or for more detail about the AMBER Alert.


Is the Wireless Emergency Alert the same as the Wireless AMBER Alert program?

No. Prior to Wireless Emergency Alert, the public could receive AMBER Alerts on their mobile devices through the Wireless AMBER Alert program. This was an initiative of CTIA-The Wireless Association®, The Wireless Foundation, The U.S. Department of Justice, NCMEC and Syniverse. It was an SMS text-based system, where members of the public were required to sign up online and designate the areas they wanted to receive alerts for. They would then only receive alerts for the designated areas regardless of where they were physically located. This system was an important evolution in the AMBER Alert program, but as of December 31, 2012 it was retired in favor of the Wireless Emergency Alert System.