Amber Alerts on your iPhone: What they are and how to manage them

AMBER Alerts on your iPhone: What they are and how to manage them

Last night, iPhone users in California got their first taste of what it's like to get an AMBER Alert notification on iOS. AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response) Alerts, named after the late Amber Hagerman, are also known as CAE (Child Abduction Emergency) and are typically delivered via SMS. On the iPhone 4S or iPhone 5, they come via push notification. Loudly. I received one in my area a month or so ago at around 4am and the sound it made was terrifying, waking me up from a dead sleep.

Apple has worked with carriers to provide government alerts, including AMBER and other emergency notifications, in the U.S. and other countries. Depending on the nature of the alert, which can include impending natural disasters, it's a great feature that can save a life, or many lives, not to mention prevent injury and property damage.

If, for some reason, you'd rather not receive government or AMBER alerts on one or several of your iOS devices, you can disable them.

  1. Launch the Settings app from the Home screen of your iPhone.
  2. Tap on Notifications and scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.
  3. Under the Government Alerts section, you'll see an option to enable and disable both Amber Alert notifications as well as general emergency alerts.

Unfortunately, there's no way to customize a tone for for alerts. They're meant to get your attention, instantly, and big, loud, and noisy is the way to do that. If there's a tornado coming your way, you want to know about it.

We've had mixed reports of vibrate mode or Do Not Disturb mode muffling the emergency alerts, but don't believe that's supposed to be the case. Government alerts are supposed to blast through all of that.

If you received an AMBER or other emergency alert on your iPhone, what did you think of it? Was it helpful? Was it scary? Did you leave them turned on?

Allyson Kazmucha

Editor for iMore, Potter pundit, and the ninja in your iOS

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There are 36 comments. Add yours.

Bill_Johnson says:

Turned mine off for the same reason as I didn't appreciate them in the middle of the night. Turned off "emergency alerts" too. Was getting tornado alerts "for my area" when in reality they were in counties across the state no where near me. Was like the old crying wolf story. (Besides, I have numerous weather apps that alert me much more accurately)

T-Will says:

They were talking about the startling sound on the radio this morning. Luckily my phone was on mute and set to Do Not Disturb, so it did start vibrating violently, but luckily no annoying sound.

Scott_N says:

Thank you! I was "alerted" in the middle of the night about a month ago as well for a flood warning in my area. I was closer to having a heart attack from the alert sound than being in a flood. Turned off.

nrweber says:

The first that this happened to me was about 2 in the morning but the best part was it was in stereo. My wife and I had our iPhones plugged in sitting on our night stands so the crazy sound was coming from both sides of the bed.

SockRolid says:

Thanks for the tip, Ally. I got two identical AMBER alerts, just before 11pm and just before 4am. I didn't find the Government Alerts settings at 4am because I didn't scroll down all the way. (I have quite a few apps.)

I'll leave the Emergency Alerts on, but the AMBER alerts off. It's too bad there's no "on but silent" setting. I would have gone for that option.

Stratification says:

I had the experience some time back after getting my iPhone (on T-Mobile). I wasn't woken in the middle of the night, but after about 6-7 of the same notification within the course of 2 hours with no additional information, I just couldn't take it and turned it off. I would love to turn it on again, but the current implementation is obnoxious.

SciTeach3 says:

I can totally understand the annoyance of being woken up in the middle of the night but let's not lose sight on what the Amber Alerts are for. Yes it might be inconvenient for you but don't forget it is a little more inconvenient for the child who was just kidnapped. Okay, I get that there is nothing you can do right then in the middle of the night but how would you feel if the alert was sent out in the middle of the day when you are out driving about and happen to be by the car involved but you had your alert off? Yes that is wildly remote but it is still possible but you did not want to be inconvenienced.

Before you rush to turn it off, remember how so very few alerts you have received (what maybe 1 since it went into effect a year ago?) and that it could actually do some good.

rdstryr says:

I completely agree with you but unfortunately I was forced to turn off Amber alerts today. I live in California and got the initial recent alert last night once BUT today I got the SAME alert 9 times within 10 minutes. Then they stopped for about 30 minutes and then within the span of 5 minutes I got it about 9 times again. I understand the importance of the alerts but seriously, I didn't the car that was described in the alert when you first sent it to me 4 minutes ago.

Tony1985 says:

Sounds like a bug. I received it exactly twice since last night just before 11:00pm.

And I agree with the OP. Just because it was "in the middle of the night" doesn't mean it wasn't effective. Everyone who received the alert new about a blue Nissan on their way to work this morning (which for my area is pretty close to where the suspect may be passing through around that time, if heading where they thought he's heading...)

If you turn off Amber alerts, but leave on Facebook/Twitter/etc. alerts, what does that say about your priorities?

Tewha says:

If my phone is in DND, it's because I'm asleep. Amber alerts won't help the child at all. Queuing them up for the morning would be much smarter of Apple.

Michael S4 says:

Thank you for having a heart.

dvdmovieking says:

Polling iPhone users at work, it seems not all of us got the alert last night (we are all in California). The differences seem to be users who are not using iPhone 4S or 5 and or not on iOS 6.1.4 or later, did not get the alert and don't have the Govt. Alerts section in Notification Center.

iphone4fun says:

The article means well... but I'm sure someone abducted in the middle of the night will be reassured they won't be waking you up. Like come on..really?

Aaron Miller says:

Had a little trouble the last few days with iMessages not sending. So I went through settings, disabled iMessage, turned off my phone and turned it back on, turned iMessage back on and everything started working normally again.

redvett says:

not a big deal to me. Id prefer to get them than not at all. if your child was abducted im sure you would want the alert out as soon as possible, I know I would. this is a real issue that needs fast notification. just think of the many awful things some dirt bag abductor can do in the time it takes to hold the alert to when its convenient for everyone to receive.

BC 2009 says:

I think AMBER alerts need to follow Do Not Disturb settings. I will be of no use to help find a kidnapped child when I am sleeping or in a meeting at work. I have already shut off Emergency Alerts after receiving a notice that there was a flash flood warning in my area throughout the weekend on a Friday afternoon, and then got the exact same alert on Saturday afternoon, Sunday at 2am and again on Sunday afternoon.

If you cry wolf too many times, then eventually the townspeople will no longer come running.

I am considering turning off AMBER alerts as well, but I have postponed that because I am a father. But they start happening with frequency in the middle of the night, then I am definitely going to shut them off. It makes the iPhone a nuisance of false alarms unless the government can figure out how to properly use these alerts and the phone can properly obey "Do Not Disturb" settings.

The only saving grace is that with my silent switch turned on, then the phone is only vibrating and I don't get the big nasty blaring noise.

CyborgSam says:

Scared me half-to-death when I got an AMBER alert in the middle of the night, I turned them off. IMHO this is part of our culture-of-fear and political correctness (it's for the children...). I don't have a solution to offer, other than public beheadings... ;)

stevebert says:

Just to be clear, I think AMBER alerts are a vital service like 9-1-1. The problem is the particular implementation of this feature on the iPhone (and, I assume, other smart phones). In short, it's just awful -- the un-configurable fire-alarm klaxon, the lack of interactivity (where IS Boulevard, CA? FYI, about 4 miles from the US-Mexico border and 500 miles from here.) The lack of additional information in back-to-back alerts. The fact that the alert text cuts off and there's no way to expand it. No "Why am I receiving this alert?" link. No "Contact us if you have any information." link. Not to mention that anyone who might see the car with the license plate is likely themselves driving and would be breaking the law to pick up their phone to read the alert. Frankly I'm surprised that anyone would leave these alerts on after receiving 3 or 4 of them in a row. Instead of blaming the annoyed, let's tell the annoyers (the state, Apple, AT&T, Verizon, etc) to make a better alert so that folks will give these life-or-death situations their due respect and not relegate them to Chicken-Little status.

Dave Barnes says:

Annoying.
I turned them off.
Don't care about someone's child.

Hamranhansenhansen says:

I turned the Amber alerts off because the 2 I have received were from different cities than where I live. It doesn't make sense to wake me up in the middle of the night or disturb a work session to find out they are looking for a specific car 300 kilometers from here. They need to be much more targeted to work.

andrew.bennekamper says:

I have received both AMBER alerts and weather emergency alerts in my iPhone. A few have come in the middle of the night. Each alert is really loud, especially at 4 am! I did not realize I could turn them off until reading this article. I'm not sure I will turn them off. Although there is not much I can do at 4 am to look for a 1987 brown Chevy sedan, I definitely think that being aware of emergencies in my area is worth some lost sleep if it means helping to find a child or getting to shelter to escape a storm.

Quackinup says:

I got the alert last night and my phone was on vibrate and did only vibrate. I may or may not turn off Amber Alerts, but the other alerts will stay on. I want to know when the Sharknado is coming! <G>

1Loop says:

"If, for some reason, you'd rather not receive government or AMBER alerts on one or several of your iOS devices, you can disable them."

There are a few good reasons.

1. Who's up at 4am besides a lot of unsavory folk? Why are these things being pushed out to everyone at 4am? Who the hell thought that was a good idea? (Samsung devices do this too)
2. They're invasive as hell. Yes, important. But a missing child does NOT give you the right to have this thing turned on by default, with no warning. It should be part of setup. At least on the iPhone it's an option to turn off completely though.
3. The emergency one likes to go off for tornados. Tornado alerts are common around because they come along with thunderstorm alerts. Tornados are not common (one every five years or so). Thunderstorms are common here and part of life and hardly a reason to stay in doors or out or do anything you wouldn't otherwise be doing. So yep, annoying and stupid.
4. This is not the equivalent of an amber alert on the radio or local news channel. Those don't automatically turn themselves on in the middle of the night.
5. Hopefully Do Not Disturb does silence these alerts. That's the purpose of DO NOT DISTURB. The user should have the right to choose. You can't force 'supposed' good citizenry. Keyword 'supposed'.

So yea, my problem is that this comes on by default, without any clue on how to turn it off. It's a bullshit user experience. Yes, user experience. I buy smartphones to use how I want to use them, and receiving annoying alerts while I'm sleeping isn't one of them. And I would probably keep it on, if ya know, I was given a choice other than 'annoying screech that I never want to hear close to me'. Like maybe, a ringtone? Ya know, those things I do answer when I'm not busy.

Believe it or not, it's Ok to criticize crappy implementations of something, even if it involves saving a child. Btw, how many children have these alerts saved? How many people have been prevented from walking into a tornado because of these specific alerts? Ya know, questions that are good to ask, in the same vein of how many terrorists attacks were stopped by NSA's snooping (a question that should have been asked, was asked, was answered). Before we hand over all our rights and expectations because of fear OR compassion.

spatial says:

wow.. Well loop.. u r seriously looped out on ur priorities. While u may be the ruler of the world in ur head, the truth is very much farther away. Notifications are not just for u but for every user out there. In 23 comments on top, i am one who is really glad there are options to care about ur life and life of other ppl. I got notification a little early abt a tornado which was abt an hour away, but its a damn tornado - it can turn any way. Knowledge is better than ignorance boy.

just cos u didn’t need help anytime does not mean others dont need help too. and if a ring scares the shit out of u in the night.. then u need to reevaluate how u live buddy. u need to be aware of ur surroundings. a 10min break in sleep will not kill u.. but it might just in case save a person.

John Hammer says:

wow.. Well spatial.. YOU are the one that seems to have a "I am the all knowing one that decides for everyone else" attitude.

You disagree with loop so you insult his intelligence? Well I don't completely agree with him on every point but he's mostly spot on - it is not (and never has been) the role of government to decide for us whether or not these alerts should be enabled by default.

You also don't have the knowledge of individuals to determine what will keep someone up after a clearly startling alert potentially in the middle of the night. Have you ever heard of sleep disorders and sleep apnea? Lots of people wake up at 1:00 AM after a couple hours downtime and are up for the remainder of the night.

So I think it is YOU who needs to reevalute how you live... buddy.

And stop trying to decide how they should live their lives. But I have a feeling you never revealed your true motivation for the harsh post against loop....

Walter Patterson says:

If you think complaints about Amber alerts in the middle of the night are insensitive, you are missing the point. Your phone "knows" if you are awake or asleep or moving about, or driving on the highway - that's how Google and Apple maps are able to show highway speeds on the traffic layer, for example. It should be trivial to have Amber alerts sent only to phones that are moving around, and especially to phones that are actually on a highway. I'm not going to spot anyone's license plate from my bedroom. Unless you're going to get out of bed and go car-spotting, the Amber alert can wait until morning. That's called personalized delivery options, and they key word is "options". It's also not just about sensitivity or disturbing someone's sleep, but the Amber alert would be far more effective if it alerted you as you begin your day, not in the middle of the night. "More effective" means lives saved by this powerful technology, which will be turned off by users if not implemented in a smart way.

Pinkie Pie says:

I was playing my phone while it was on Do not disturb, so I really have no clue how the sound would be. But, it did vibrate a bunch.

Marie Ferguson Jones says:

The Amber Alerts are a necessary part of society, but unfortunately the information on the screen is incomplete and there is no way I have found to view the rest of the message. I got one a few minutes ago and only know the town because the rest of the valuable information that could save the child's life is not accessible. Once you put in your password on the iPhone you can no longer see the alert. Apple needs to rectify this issue in order to make an alert worthwhile.

Drew Smith55 says:

I just now received one of these. It says: "Oakland, CA AMBER Alert: LIC/ ####### (CA) 2001 Red Infinity QX4 SportUtility Vehicle" (actual licence number removed). OK, so what? Has this been stolen, is someone in this vehicle in need of help, or what? A flood, tornado, earthquake, these I understand. This one? Baffling!

iPod_Touch_5th says:

Me too. I'm in 8th period math an all of a sudden the tone goes off in 5 place. Even the teachers' iPhone went off. Talk about cut a period short.

Monkeytoes18 says:

I received my first Amber alert today. Question is how do I "retrieve" the information? My phone was locked. I assumed the information would be there when I logged in but nope, no text or e-mail. Since I didn't know to write down the car description, tag number, etc. how can I get that information? My office mate said the same thing. It's not useful if we can't retrieve this information for reference.

AngelsSix says:

If you swipe down from the top of the screen after unlocking the phone you can review all the alert messages in full.

Rebecca Durnal says:

Today during lunch at Cracker Barrel, dozens of phones received an AMBER Alert. I glanced at mine and put it back in my purse. After lunch, I wanted to take a second look at the car description and license number but couldn't find the alert anywhere in my phone. Are they saved somewhere in the phone? If so, where are they? If not, why not? It is no help to authorities if everyone calls them and reports every blue Ford or black SUV they see. We can keep a lookout for the vehicle and then double check the tag number before reporting location. Vehicle ID is easy to remember 3 hours later, license number is not.

Derek Carr says:

I turned them off the Amber Alerts because if the inability to customize them. I don't need nor want to be awoken in the middle if the night nor have a meeting interrupted. If there was a way to customize them it turn down the volume or something I'd be happy to leave them on.

Jeffery Patrick says:

Glad I found this article. After waking up from REM sleep at 530 in the morning, I could care less if I ever receive an amber alert again. Turned off!! The Alert came out of Sarasota FL, I am 10 hours away in NW Florida. OFF!