A statewide Amber Alert set cell phones buzzing and flashing late Monday night to alert Californians to watch out for two San Diego children that authorities say may have been abducted by a neighbor who allegedly killed their mother.
The use of the child abduction emergency system shed light not only on the tragic case at hand – the children's whereabouts remain unknown but their mother's body has been found – but on the use of the system itself, which this week expanded in California to cell phones from its previous platforms of radio, television, and road signs.
But as the Amber Alert system (it is named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996) expands, so does public pushback. Monday marked the first time in California that officials notified the public of an Amber Alert via cell phones, according to the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and several media accounts have depicted people as confused, angered, or embarrassed by the tones and messages showing up on their phones.
The new system sends messages to wireless customers with devices in the area where a child has been abducted, even if the wireless customer isn't from the area.
“With this latest modification that just kicked in, we can describe it as well-intentioned but poorly executed,” says Darren Kavinoky, an attorney and TV legal analyst based in Los Angeles. “There wasn’t sufficient advanced notice of the rollout, and there has been insufficient information about how people can opt out of it, and as a result, there is a real danger that it could hurt their cause.”
He likens the situation to the history of car alarms, which began to go off so frequently that people ignored them.
But Bob Hoever, of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, says this is an important time to remind people of the success of the Amber Alert, which is in use now in several countries. Nationally, there have been 656 children returned because of the system. More recently, since first installing the system in 2002, Utah has had 34 Amber Alerts for 39 children. Thirty-one of those kids were returned safely.
But the backlash is coming because of the manner of the alert. One woman is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as not being able to sleep after the alert went off 12 times overnight. Another man was mocked by a standup comedian who made fun of an ambulance sound coming from his pants. And others have said they felt afraid when the sounds have gone off on planes.
In response, Mr. Hoever says the tones are regulated by the FCC. But Paul Murphy, Utah's Amber Alert coordinator, is quoted in an online article at KSL.com: "It's a loud tone. It's meant to startle people so they know something big is going on, and so if you're not used to it, you need to be aware you may be getting an alert that really surprises you," he said.
A contributor calling himself, “GoBlueDevils” put out the following search for help in an online Android Forum: “My phone started blaring an alarm last night at 2 a.m. It took me a while to figure out where the noise was coming from, but I eventually realized that it was my phone. It turns out it was an Amber Alert sent to all capable cellphones in the area."
"According to info I found, we are allowed to opt out of these alerts and disable them. However, it says that we must contact the carriers to find instructions for changing the settings on each specific phone. I know the Amber Alert is a useful tool, but when they wake me up in the middle of the night for an Amber Alert that is 200 miles and a 3+ hour drive away, it can get rather annoying!”
To offset concerns that this is just another big government intrusion into public life, officials are trying to remind people they have the option of opting out of participation.
“The problem is lack of public education about what this is,” says Hoever. “This is meant to be a helpful warning, like of dangerous weather coming to an area or any other imminent threat. It’s exactly the same as any other TV or radio warning.”
Under the new procedures for cell-phone Amber alerts, cellphone owners receive messages automatically, based on their proximity to the emergency, not based on their phone number.
“If you’re from Texas and that’s where your phone number is based and you’re traveling in California at the time of the Amber Alert, you’ll receive the text message about the Amber Alert in California on your Texas-based phone,” says Hoever.