For most families news of a missing loved one doesn't sink in until an alert has been sent out and a missing person poster appears in the news.
"A lot of folks say it didn't feel real until they saw the Amber alert, or saw the poster, and that's when it hit them," said Brian Frost, a trainer with the Montana Missing Person’s Clearinghouse, a division of the Montana Department of Justice.
When people go missing, law enforcement often rely on tips from the public. To do that they issue alerts when someone goes missing, and those alerts vary depending on the urgency of the situation, or the age of the missing person.
The two main alerts that are used in helping find missing people are Amber and MEPA alerts. They are issued by the Department of Justice.
But, what is the difference between an Amber alert and other alerts, and why aren’t they used for every missing person case?
America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response
People are typically most familiar with Amber alerts because they are loud and urgent.
The alert, mostly used for child abductions and disappearances, immediately notify radio and TV stations, alert news media and push out text messages and notifications to cellphones.
Amber alerts are used few and far between in Montana, partly because many missing person cases don’t rise to the level of an Amber alert. In 2019 only four Amber alerts were issued, Frost said.
Criteria for the Amber alert are:
- The missing person is 17 years or younger, or has a mental or physical disability.
- There is reasonable belief the child has been abducted or that they disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
- The child is in imminent danger.
- There is enough information about the abduction or disappearance.
Missing and Endangered Person Advisory
A MEPA is a modified alert designed to give law enforcement agencies another option when responding to a case that doesn’t fit the Amber alert criteria.
That could mean runaway children, missing children or kids in missing person cases, or missing adults. Like Amber alerts, a MEPA is designed to quickly spread news of the missing person or child to other agencies and news media. However, the MEPA does not automatically push out a notification to cellphones or broadcast stations.
The criteria for a MEPA are:
You have free articles remaining.
- The circumstances do not meet the Amber Alert criteria.
- The person went missing under unexplained, involuntary or suspicious circumstances.
- The person is believed to be in danger, be that from age or health, weather conditions, or with dangerous people.
- There is descriptive information that could help the public locate the person.
Local alerts: BOLO and ATL
Whether the state issues a missing alert depends on whether the local agencies handling the case request one, Frost said.
“It can’t come from the public,” he said. “That’s how the ball gets started.”
Local agencies aren't required to request an alert for a missing person case, Frost said.
"From our end we do monitor the missing person entries at the clearinghouse, and if we see something that stands out (where) an alert can be issued, we reach out (to the local agency) and we say 'Can we assist,'" Frost said.
Some agencies may not want to issue an alert through the state, and instead issue their own through social media, or by alerting local news outlets. Terms often used in those cases can be ATL, attempt to locate, or BOLO, be on the lookout.
Typically that may mean that the agency wants help from the public in finding a person, but they don't believe the case meets the criteria of a state alert.
"If it doesn't meet the criteria for a MEPA or an Amber alert, they're always encouraged to (send out local alerts)," Frost said. Both BOLO and ATL alerts are the fastest way for local law enforcement agencies to communicate with other agencies, Frost said.
State alerts include the Amber alert and the MEPA. The DOJ has one other alert, a Blue Alert, which is meant specifically for law enforcement officers who go missing or who are killed and a suspect is on the run, Frost said.
In 2019 the Montana Department of Justice issued 28 MEPA alerts and four AMBER alerts, Frost said.
What happens when an alert is issued?
Depending on the alert, the public is immediately notified of the missing person, and typically are asked to keep a lookout for the missing person. The alert will give a description of the missing person and may include details like last known whereabouts, areas where the person is suspected to be or descriptions of possible abductors or suspects.
MEPAs are pushed to law enforcement agencies and local news outlets, either statewide or regionally. AMBER alerts are broadcast on radio and TV stations, pushed to news outlets, and texted to cellphones.
In addition the DOJ uses the CodeRED system to issue the state’s MEPAs and Amber alerts. People who use the CodeRED app on their smartphones will receive alerts for both Amber alerts and MEPAs.
People who don’t use the CodeRED app will still receive texts for Amber alerts. Both the Amber alert and MEPA also automatically notify all Montana law enforcement agencies of the missing person.
Understand it better: Our stories on the missing and murdered indigenous people crisis
The Billings Gazette has continued to examine one of the most urgent issues in Montana and our region — missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
In Montana, Native Americans are just 6.7% of the total population, but make up 26% of missing persons cases.
The problem has persisted for generations, and many of the cases remain unsolved. The causes are numerous and complex, and any lasting solutions have been elusive.
The Gazette is exploring the reasons the crisis has persisted and what can be done about it.
And, we need your help. We welcome your tips, suggestions and feedback at billingsgazette.com/mmiwtips.
Native American women and children go missing at an alarming rate in Montana, and their families and investigators can spend years searching for them, sometimes to no avail.
The relative silence over the disappearance of two Native American women was Deborah Maytubee-Shipman’s call to action.
Local firefighters, game wardens, and families of other victims often are the leaders in making inroads on missing, murdered Native people cases, panelists in Red Lodge said Tuesday.
In Montana, Native Americans are nearly four times more likely to be victims of homicide than the general population, but a lack of available,…
Several bills aiming to combat the crisis of missing Native Americans in Montana are now on the books, after members of the Montana Legislatur…
During moments of doubt and suspicion, Mary Wilson wonders if every passing face could answer the question she cannot let go of.
Maria Campbell believes that honestly examining personal and community histories is essential to healing wounds of trauma and injustice, an en…