Emergency broadcasts - radio or TV messages preceded by those attention-getting shrill beeps - are increasingly being credited with saving the lives of children across the US.
But the youngsters aren't being protected from severe weather or a civil emergency. They're being rescued from a more insidious danger: kidnappers.
Spurred by success stories in Dallas, Tulsa, Okla., and several other US cities, law-enforcement agencies and children's advocates are pushing for greater use of the Emergency Alert System to enlist the public in nabbing child abductors.
"You can't believe how many times we've slapped our heads and said, 'Why didn't we think of this before?' " says Dee Anderson, sheriff of Terrant County near Dallas, where use of the system has helped in the recovery of eight children in three years. "It's so simple and works so well, and on top of that it doesn't cost any money. It's no wonder it's spreading like wildfire across the country."
The antikidnapping system - called the "Amber plan" - is named after Amber Hagerman, an Arlington, Texas, girl who, while riding her bike, was abducted and murdered. Her death in 1997 galvanized local radio stations to work with police to try to thwart such crimes in the future.
Just last fall, the Amber plan helped save two children in Tulsa. On the evening of Sept. 14, a couple left their children in the backseat of their pink Geo Tracker - along with keys in the ignition - and dashed into a store for groceries. Another couple, high on drugs, stole the car with the children inside.
Police activated the Amber plan, and broadcasts about the abducted children galvanized the city. Citizens hopped in their cars and searched neighborhood streets for the stolen car. Throughout a tense night, aided by a flood of tips, Tulsa police stopped pink Geo Trackers 48 times. Some drivers hung up signs reading, "I've been searched already."
At 6 a.m., a fisherman who had seen an emergency message on TV spotted the car, abandoned 70 miles outside of Tulsa. He notified authorities, and the children were safely recovered. Police later arrested the abductors.
"The Amber plan was a huge success," says Capt. Tim Jones of the Tulsa Police Department. "It was nice to see the media get behind this in a big, big way."
Amber plans have now spread to 10 other metropolitan areas and three states. Most were launched in the past 15 months, and another dozen cities are studying the idea.
Now, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is embracing the concept. Over the next few months, the center plans to meet with police and media in America's 10 biggest media markets and press them to adopt some form of the original plan.
"The fact that there have been recoveries using the system has proven it can work," says Joann Donellan, who heads the program for the NCMEC. "It's another tool for law enforcement, and it's a way for broadcasters to serve their communities in the most meaningful way."
A single grim statistic underscores the push for Amber plans: Of children who are abducted and slain, 3 in 4 are killed within three hours of being kidnapped. Amber plan supporters say the ability to spread the word quickly is the best asset.
One of the Amber system's first successes came in 1998, when a baby sitter failed to return a six-week-old infant at the end of the day. Dallas police, working through the night, determined the baby sitter was moving from crack house to crack house, in search of drugs.
At 7 a.m. they faxed an Amber alert to two main radio stations in Dallas. The stations' broadcasts were then relayed to 40 other radio stations.
Within 40 minutes, a motorist with a cellphone spotted the car on the road, and even managed to pull alongside the vehicle to glimpse the baby in back. Police closed in, arrested the suspect, and recovered the baby.
Police in Dallas and elsewhere have strict criteria for issuing Amber alerts. Thousands of children are reported missing each year, but many are runaways or children involved in custody disputes. Experts say that annually about 300 kidnapped children are killed or never seen again. This is the group, they say, that can be helped by Amber plans.
In Oklahoma, the system has been used twice in one year of operation, with one clear-cut success. In Florida, half a dozen alerts have been issued in six months, with one successful resolution. In nearly four years, the Dallas area has used the Amber system about three dozen times. Nine of those incidents led to recovery of the abducted child, though in some cases it is not clear to what extent the system proved to be the key.
For instance, a young girl playing with a friend was snatched by a man in a truck. The girl was assaulted, but a few hours later set free on an Interstate highway. She told police her attacker became so agitated at hearing repeated descriptions of his vehicle on the radio that he ordered her out of the truck.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society