When teenager Hannah Anderson went missing a week ago – thought to have been abducted by a family friend, an older man named James Lee DiMaggio – the first way many people in southern California knew about it was through an insistent, blaring text message on their cell phone.
To some, especially if they were driving at the time, it was an annoying interruption they scrambled to silence. But many others switched on their TVs to learn more details of the case, in fact becoming part of the search as they began keeping an eye out for Mr. DiMaggio’s blue Nissan Versa automobile, California license number 6WCU986.
Over the next several days, dozens of callers phoning in to the Amber Alert tip line – the system that had broadcast the message via television and flashing roadside signs as well as to thousands of smart phone owners – helped police focus the search on what looked to be a route up a rural two-lane highway through northern California and then Oregon into Idaho.
Amber Alert played one last key role in the drama Saturday evening when an FBI tactical team found DiMaggio and the girl camped in a rugged, heavily-forested wilderness area about 70 miles northeast of Boise, rescuing the girl and shooting and killing her alleged abductor in what law enforcement officials described as a “confrontation.”
Two days earlier, a man on horseback had seen the girl and the man with camping gear, chatting briefly with them but unaware of who they might be. When he got home and saw TV reports about what was being described as an abduction, he called the Amber Alert tip line, then provided officials with the location where the pair was found.
In the end, it was one of many such Amber Alert stories resulting in the successful recovery children who may have been traumatized by their abduction but at least were returned to their families.
The Amber Alert program was set up in 1996 following the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. “Amber” is also an acronym: “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.” (For this reason, it’s also written as “AMBER.”)
The program is described by the nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as “a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry, to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases.”
The program, which is coordinated by the US Department of Justice, is now active in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Over the years, according to the Nation Center, Amber Alerts have resulted in 656 successful recoveries of children.
With advances in computer and communications technology, as well as in social media, new ways of disseminating Amber Alerts have evolved.
“ Radio and TV, lottery and highway signs, airports and truck stops, Yahoo, Facebook and AOL, are all part of the AMBER Alert system of getting information about a missing child to people in the very locality in which she was abducted or last seen,” according to the Justice Department.
Most recently, that has included Google.
“This innovative and exciting new partnership will provide real-time AMBER Alert updates to users of Google Map and Google Search features,” Justice Department official Mary Lou Leary said in announcing this step last November. “Because we know a child’s chances for a safe recovery are greater when resources are mobilized quickly, Google Public Alerts will help to ensure a rapid response in the first critical hours after a child goes missing.”
This year, Amber Alerts were added to the nationwide Wireless Emergency Alert program – which is why “Government Alerts” (including “AMBER Alerts” and “Government Alerts”) now appear in the “settings>notifications” of new Apple iPhones and other smart phones, where they can be manually switched on or off.
If the system knows where you are based on the GPS capability of your phone, it sends you Amber Alert messages for the area in which you’re located.
“This has already been successful,” writes National Center for Missing & Exploited Children CEO John Ryan on the organization’s website. “In February, an 8-month-old baby was abducted during a home invasion in Minneapolis. She was safely recovered when a young woman received the AMBER Alert on her phone, saw the car parked across the street and called police.”
On Sunday, an Amber Alert was issued in Rhode Island for a 2-year-old boy state police say was taken by the suspect in a double homicide.
An Amber Alert has been issued for Isaih Perez, who was discovered missing from a Johnston, R.I., home at 5:20 a.m. Sunday, according to the Associated Press. Authorities say they believe 22-year-old Malcolm Crowell of Providence has the boy. They say he should be considered armed and dangerous.