Good Question: Why are Amber Alerts so brief?

December 17, 2018 07:03 AM

A few of you noticed something interesting with the Amber Alerts that you received on your cell phones recently. You asked Pat Taney to look into it for this week's Good Question report. 

The question: Why were those Amber wireless text alerts so brief, giving you very little information?


Two weeks ago, when police were looking for a missing Rochester teen, many of you got an alert on your cell phone. It simply read 'Amber Alert, Rochester, New York. Check local media.'

That's it. No description of the girl. No pictures of her or the man accused of taking her.

Why was critical information missing in the alert?

We asked Ed Suk, executive director of the New York National Center For Missing and Exploited Children. 

Suk's center doesn't send out the alerts; state police handle that, but he does know police are limited on what they can send out via wireless alerts.

"The limitations are a 90-character notification, which is not a lot," Suk said.

Ninety characters. A limit set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency which runs and controls the wireless alert system.

"If we have a vehicle description, a license plate number...that's terrific. We can do that in 90 characters," Suk said. "If they don't, like in this most recent case in Rochester, they'll simply tell you to check local media."

Authorities can attach a web link, directing you to a website with more details but that could cause problems.

"If you have a million or two million people that get this URL and they're all hitting this URL at the same time, you really run the risk of the system crashing," Suk told News10NBC. "Media outlets are the better way to go because you will choose the media outlet you are familiar with. There's a larger pool of sources and you can get a lot of great information that way."

This is the same system that was used to send out the Presidential Alert back in October. The system is evolving and as technology improves, it will too.

According to NBC News, there are plans to increase the 90 character limit to 360 characters in May of 2019.

If you have a question you'd like Pat to answer, send him an email to


Pat Taney

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