The recent Amber Alert for Hailey Owens, the Springfield girl who was later found murdered, was unusually jolting for countless people in Kansas and Missouri.
That’s because the news that she was missing came with a loud and scary screech on their cellphones. For many people, it was the first time they — and skittish pets — had ever heard their device make such a noise.
“It’s definitely an attention-grabber,” said Mark Malick, special agent in charge of programs at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He heard the alert for the first time Feb. 18, when both his work and personal cellphones went off for Hailey. He knew the sound was coming, but still it startled him.
This new tech fact of life is a system that blasts out Amber Alerts from cell towers to all mobile devices capable of receiving them.
“Amber Alert tone just went off on my phone and scared the crap out of me,” Nathan Winters of Springfield posted Tuesday on Facebook, after the second such alert in just eight days.
It turned out that the second one, for a Texas girl, was mistakenly issued for Kansas and Missouri when officials in Texas misread a cellphone ping. But the two alerts, coming so close together, woke people up — sometimes literally — to the new notification system.
One recent alert even disrupted a performance of the Kansas City Symphony, said executive director Frank Byrne.
Wireless Emergency Alerts first began sending Amber Alerts in December 2012. Kansas went through all of 2013 without an Amber Alert, so the two in February were the first in that state to be issued through the new system.
Missouri had four Amber Alerts in 2013, but not all phones could receive WEAs. Most newer ones do.
“The ultimate goal of the wireless industry is to have it on all mobile devices,” said Bob Hoever, director of special programs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Amber Alerts are issued in cases of suspected abduction or imminent danger of a child and have traditionally been disseminated through the media and on highway signboards.
The wireless industry worked with federal authorities to create a more modern way to spread the word.
Now when police issue an Amber Alert, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends it to participating wireless carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile. The carriers beam it out, without charge, to their customers from cell towers.
The alert creates a jarring tone similar to the emergency test signals on television and radio. If a phone is turned to silent mode, it is supposed to just vibrate and buzz. WEAs will not disrupt texts, calls or data sessions already in progress, according to the wireless trade group. Unlike text messages, WEAs are not subject to potential congestion or delays on wireless networks.
WEAs don’t need to know your phone number. They are blasted throughout a geographical area where the alert is relevant.
“If you have a smartphone and you’re from Missouri but you’re vacationing in California, and California has an Amber Alert, you’re going to get that alert,” said Capt. J. Tim Hull, a spokesman for the Missouri Highway Patrol.
CTIA, the wireless trade association, says WEAs make sense now that more than 89 percent of people in the United States have mobile broadband subscriptions.
Although older phones may not receive them, as people buy newer devices, more and more of the country will receive WEAs.
Amber Alerts already worked. Hoever said 679 abducted children have been rescued and returned safely specifically because of Amber Alerts since 1996. The new system is meant to enhance that success.
The first WEA Amber Alert went out in Minneapolis and is credited with the safe recovery, within minutes, of an abducted child.
An informal survey by The Kansas City Star found reactions to the new warning tone varied from approval to annoyance. Several people said their pique was lessened when they learned it was an Amber Alert.
“Once they realize that that very minor distraction is designed to save the life of a child, I think they walk away with a different point of view,” Hoever said.
Malick said some people also complain about crawler alerts on television.
“We’re not going to please everyone,” he said. “But the majority of the population overwhelmingly supports the program and understands the necessity to put out an alert. The response we hear is, ‘What if that was your child?’ ”
Malick said officials can decide not to issue a WEA in the wee hours when most people are asleep.
The two recent Amber Alerts in such a short period were an anomaly. But they caused some people to disable the function so they would not receive further alerts. Officials say that defeats the purpose.
“Even though the latest Amber Alert, out of Texas, was unnecessary if you will, we don’t want it to diminish the program or desensitize people to the purpose of Amber Alerts,” said Malick.
People who disable WEA will also not receive National Weather Service alerts about dangerous weather. But they cannot block presidential alerts, should one ever be issued.
“That’s an individual preference,” Hull said of a decision to disable the WEA capability. “We’re going to send out Amber Alerts like we always have. ... This is just another way of getting it out a little bit faster to everybody. The more eyes and ears you have out there, that’s the key to a safer recovery.”