Amber Alert system gets a boost in spreading the word about child abductions

The way people receive Amber Alerts on cellphones will change Dec. 31 — and it should help get the word out even better than before, child advocates say.

People still will receive text-like messages on smartphones capable of receiving such alerts.

But the alerts about abducted children will join the system that also sends imminent threat alerts, such as for natural and man-made disasters, and presidential alerts, such as for national security.

Limited in characters, the alert will direct readers to watch local media.

“The idea behind it is to streamline the process of notifying when an Amber Alert is issued,” said Capt. Tim Hull, a spokesman for the Missouri Highway Patrol. “Rather than getting an actual text message, it will come across like many of the alerts do like when you are watching TV or the radio.”

The idea is to get the alert information out as quickly as possible.

“The more quickly we are able to find and locate them (children), the more likely they are to come home safely,” Hull said.

Currently, people have to sign up to receive Amber Alert texts. But under the new system, people with Wireless Emergency Alerts-enabled phones automatically will receive all three types of alerts free. People can opt out of imminent threat and Amber Alerts, but not presidential alerts.

The alerts also are focused on specific regions.

“You may have someone visiting from another state that has this WEA capability on their smartphone if we have an Amber Alert listed here, they will actually receive that information about the Amber Alert,” Hull said.

“The key there is to get more eyes and ears out there as much as possible.”

There is the potential for a lot more people to view the alerts, said Bob Hoever with the Missing Children Division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Under the current system, people sign up by indicating their ZIP code. The problem with that, Hoever said, is that people traveling outside their region won’t get alerts for their current location.

The new system is based off of cell towers and will alert cellphones in that area.

“Those who have not signed up to receive the alerts will notice they will be receiving them now, as long as they have not opted out of the Wireless Emergency Alerts and as long as they have a WEA capable phone,” Hoever said. “What it means is a lot more coverage when an Amber Alert is activated.”

David Diggs, vice president of wireless Internet development for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said the old Wireless Amber Alerts program was developed as a precursor to the new Wireless Emergency Alerts.

“It was an effort to send out alerts to consumers on their wireless devices, but we didn’t have a way to draw (the alerts) to a specific area,” Diggs said.

The current system launched in 2005. At the time, the industry thought it was better to implement the ZIP-code based system rather than waiting for advancement in technology.

To know if their cell phones are capable of receiving the alerts, people can contact their provider or look on their box, if they kept it, to see if it has the Wireless Emergency Alert compatible logo, Diggs said.

For the most part, Amber Alerts are rare so people don’t need to fear being inundated with messages, Hull said.

For an Amber Alert, authorities need confirmation that the child has been abducted, that the child is 17 years old or younger, that authorities believe the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death and that there is a description of the abductor or vehicle used in the abduction.

“The criteria for an Amber Alert is kind of stringent because you want to make sure that when you do have to issue an Amber Alert, people pay attention to it,” Hull said.