Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Cellphones can now get AMBER Alerts

USA Today
Cellphones can now get AMBER Alerts
By Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — AMBER Alert, the public notification system that has helped return 201 abducted children safely since 1997, will be expanded today so that most people with a cell phone or other wireless device can get alerts in their area.

"The best way to find children who are at the greatest risk is to mobilize the eyes and ears of the public," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., which worked with the wireless telephone industry to expand alerts to wireless customers.

More than 182 million people use cell phones or other wireless devices, such as BlackBerrys. About 90% of the users in the country, those who subscribe to big carriers, can get an alert on an abducted child free by signing up at www.wirelessamberalerts.org. They can select the areas for which they want notification.

Subscribers to smaller phone services will be able to sign up in about two months, says Steve Largent, president of CTIA-The Wireless Association.

The cell phone alert builds on the existing AMBER Alert system that broadcasts descriptions of the missing children and the suspects who may have taken them in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Under the system, law enforcement officials work with local radio and television broadcasters to issue emergency messages when a child is missing and thought to be in danger. Some states issue the alerts on electronic highway signs.

The highway text messages are similar to what cell phone users would receive. The missing child center will issue text messages when notified by law enforcement. The messages will be routed to participating carriers, such as Verizon or Sprint. The companies then send the messages to subscribers. The process can be completed in minutes, Allen says.

"Time is the enemy in the search for a missing child," Allen says. "You have to move fast." In 74% of abduction cases, Allen says, the child is killed within the first three hours.

AMBER stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. The alert system was created after Amber Hagerman, 9, was abducted in 1996 from her neighborhood in Arlington, Texas, and killed. Allen credits the system with the rescue of 201 children. Last year, the center tracked 252 alerts.

Last week, police issued a nationwide AMBER Alert for a New Mexico toddler reported missing on Mother's Day. The child was found unharmed Friday in Mexico.