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Port: We need to rethink North Dakota's 'silver alerts'

Can the emergency management folks make the alerts more localized? Can we be more discerning about which sort of alerts we send out?

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Silver Alert logo
Courtesy image / State of North Dakota
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MINOT, N.D. — On Monday night I was drifting off to sleep with a book in my face (the excellent English translation of "The Anomaly" by Hervé Le Tellier) when I was shocked back into consciousness by a loud alert from my phone.

And my wife's phone in the living room.

And my daughter's phone on the night table next to me where I put it after she turned it in for the evening.

Turns out, an elderly man had gone missing in Tioga. He was found , shortly after, and we can all be thankful for that, but was it necessary to send out a statewide alert?

What can I, in Minot, do about a missing person in Tioga? What can people in Fargo do, for that matter?

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"I was studying here at NDSU at the library and suddenly heard 20 phones simultaneously yelling at the top of their lungs," one commenter in a Reddit thread about the silver alert wrote.

"Something like this needs to be localized," another commenter wrote . "I'm in Dickinson. Not sure how localized, but at the end of the whole discussion if it isn't life or death of immediate concern with good details, it shouldn't be waking tens of thousands of people up."

I tend to agree.

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Our reporter Michelle Griffith did a follow-up on the alert . "In 2021, North Dakota has issued 11 Silver Alerts. In eight cases, the missing person was found safe," she reported. "Two of the people were found deceased and one has not been found, according to the Department of Emergency Services."

These alerts are happening with some regularity - about once a month - and that's a problem. Not just because it's annoying, though that shouldn't be discounted, but because eventually, North Dakotans may begin to tune these alerts out.

If that happens, the alerts will be a far less effective tool for law enforcement and emergency management personnel.

It's possible to disable the alerts on some phones. I use a phone with the Android operating system, and there's an option in the settings to turn off government alerts. I don't want to turn that option off because I do want to be alerted to actual emergencies - a tornado nearby or flooding, etc. - but if the only time I get a notification is when someone has wandered off on the other part of the state I may just do that.

I'm not sure what the solution for this problem is. Can the emergency management folks make the alerts more localized? Can we be more discerning about which sort of alerts we send out?

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But something needs to happen before the status quo undermines the efficacy of the alert system.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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