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What is an Amber Alert?

what is an amber alert

What is an Amber Alert?

Nationwide, over 2,000 children are reported missing every day, and most of them are taken by people they know. News Discovery, CNN, and the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children all confirm that less than three percent of total child abductions are committed by strangers. Strangers taking children off the street is a lot more rare than being taken by an acquaintance or relative, but is a real threat, none the less. When it happens, and the objective of the kidnapper is to kill the child, then the odds are very likely that the child has only a few hours to live. This leaves an extremely small window of salvation and calls for an immediate and aggressive response. According to Law and Order Magazine, this window is only three hours long.

What is an Amber alert?

AMBER is an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, and the alert system is designed to locate abducted children. The prototype for the current model being used was developed and implemented by the combined efforts of local broadcasters and police in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas in 1996. The acronym AMBER also symbolizes the little girl who was the subject of the necessity of an emergency alert system.

The Amber Hagerman Story

Arlington, Texas – 1996 – Nine-year-old Amber Hagerman disappeared while riding her bicycle around her neighborhood. She and her five-year-old brother, Richard, were playing two blocks from their grandparents’ house, near an abandoned grocery store.

Even though her abductor and killer was never apprehended, Amber’s situation is responsible for launching a serious and proactive response that may potentially save other children from her terrible fate. The details of her abduction also exemplify some of the criteria for the system established in her name.

The Department of Justice recommends that officials of all municipalities follow similar criteria to ensure a focused search effort.

  • The abductee must be a minor under the age of 18.

Even if a particular state’s age requirement differs from this, states agree to broadcast the alert as a courtesy to the issuing state and the system as a whole. Though this courtesy is extended, various age requirements do cause confusion and possibly cloud the effectiveness of the system when it is applied to multiple jurisdictions.

  • Certainty that an abduction has occurred

A certain level of risk must be established before an alert can be sent out. The system cannot afford the negative consequences of false alarms. They jeopardize the legitimacy of the system by making the alerts seem less important. Some false alarms are false reports. Confirming as many details as possible helps to legitimize true emergencies and to discredit false claims. Fake emergencies pose serious problems because people lose faith in the integrity of the system. Crying wolf unnecessarily has serious consequences.

  • Assessment of abduction

The child must be in immediate danger of severe bodily harm or death. Stranger abductions are much more likely to have negative results and are taken more seriously; unless the abductor is confirmed as intent on harming or killing the child. Since stranger abductions are less common, the number of AMBER alerts issued should be far and few between, thus emphasizing the importance of their existence.

  • Sufficient amount of information about the child, abductor, and the abduction itself

Enough information must be available to identify the child, abductor, a vehicle, or a location. Significant and detailed descriptions must be provided to qualify for an alert. Ineffective alerts will also jeopardize the integrity of the system.

  • Abductee’s information must be updated in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system
    • AMBER alert information must be submitted immediately.
    • The case should be labeled as a child abduction along with a detailed description of events during the abduction.
    • While some plans exclude the NCIC connection, the better plan is to allow this system to pick up where others leave off. The NCIC system is invaluable if the case expands beyond local, state, and then regional boundaries, to national exposure.
    • To skip this part of the process will undermine progress and waste critical time.

The AMBER Alert Coordinator assists state and local officials, and promotes coordination between statewide and regional officials. NCIC involvement can only help this person do his or her job.

History of Amber Alert

The Amber alert effort begins to spread from state to state, but by the end of 2001, only four states had adopted statewide plans for the program. AMBER gained national recognition in 2002 at a White House conference on runaway, exploited, or missing children. A national AMBER Alert Coordinator was designated by the U. S. Attorney General to assist and cohere search efforts between local and state officials. The next year, the PROTECT Act was passed, giving law enforcement more legal leeway to process violent crimes against children, and adding structure to the role of the AMBER Alert Coordinator.

A list of suggested criteria was developed by the Department of Justice in 2004, at the request of state coordinators of the program and the direction of the PROTECT Act. The list was created in hopes of minimizing confusion from district to district. Most states follow the procedures according to these guidelines.

The following year, all fifty states were cooperating in a national network plan, and wireless alerts were first used. Child Abduction Response Team (CART) was established by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement when Carlie Brucia was kidnapped in 2004 and found murdered five days later.

These teams consist of interagency personnel. Forensic experts, crime analysts, and other law enforcement investigators are trained to support law enforcement as first responders for AMBER and non – AMBER abductions and search parties.

By mid 2006, a coalition comprising the DOJ, the Wireless Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and the Ad Council were using multiple media outlets to persuade the public to participate by receiving wireless AMBER alerts. The DOJ approaches tribal leaders to incorporate AMBER policies for a complete nationwide effort.

In 2007, the coalition expands to include ten tribal sites, MySpace, and the Transportation Security Administration in its secondary distribution network. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) becomes a member of the network in 2008, and AMBER Alert plans extend to Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, the U. S. Virgin Islands, Canada (select provinces), and Mexico (select border states).

The AMBER Alert story continues to change in an attempt to improve and help more and more child victims. The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program sends alerts to millions of cell phone users automatically. These alerts look like text messages, but they will have an official appearance. The audible alert is also singular and won’t be available as a choice on your phone’s list of audio options.


  • Send four types of alerts
    • AMBER – child abduction and immediate threat to life
    • Presidential – terrorist threat or serious natural disaster
    • Imminent Threat – weather – related alerts from the National Weather Service
      • Severe – dust storms or flash flooding
      • Extreme – tornadoes, typhoons, hurricanes, tsunamis, and extreme winds
    • Immediate action or evacuation of local area
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) officials send authenticated alerts to wireless carriers, who then forward them to wireless subscribers.
  • Alerts are broadcast from geographically targeted cell towers in the vicinity of the emergency. These alerts are received by all WEA-capable phones in the vicinity of a targeted tower.
  • If your cell phone was released in 2013 or later, then it is WEA-capable. You may exclude yourself from imminent threats and AMBER alerts, but Presidential messages are mandatory.
  • If your mobile device does not receive these alerts, you must rely on other forms of communication for information. You will have to access television, radio, and other traditional methods of public announcement.

The only tools available to law enforcement at the time of Amber’s disappearance were not designed to be time sensitive. Manpower was borrowed from other agencies, criminal records of previous offenders had to be examined and processed, interviews with people in the immediate vicinity of the abduction site had to be conducted. All of this was probably organized and implemented after she had already been killed.

Amber was found approximately eight miles from the site of her abduction, her body lying face down in a creek; her throat was cut. Given the proximity of the abduction site and the dump site, the AMBER Alert System would definitely have improved the chances of finding her within that alleged three-hour window.

Supporters of the AMBER Alert System claim that more than 700 cases of found missing children can be directly connected to the plan. Though this fact can be categorically an indication of success, the degree it represents can be misleading. Even if this fact reflects the number of successful cases that occur within a year; how does it rate when you consider that nearly 800,000 abductions occur every year? It means that it represents less than nine percent of the total number of reported missing cases.

The high-tech modern WEA system has been set in place, but it is set in motion and maintained by human endeavor that has proven to be unreliable. In a case involving the derailment of a railroad car filled with poisonous chlorine gas, Granitesville, South Carolina officials seem to be the failing cogs that connect the machine to the general public (Potter).

In some instances, officials do not implement the process properly. Different parts of the machine are connected by human interaction. Failure to set the process in motion properly leads to unsuccessful or non-productive execution of the process.

The railroad car began to leak and events unfolded as follows:

  • Television crews were sent to cover the accident more than thirty minutes after it happened.
  • Graniteville officials did not request an alert until two hours after that.
  • An emergency broadcast was issued more than four hours after the leak began (Potter).

On the other hand, ABC News reports that the state of Maryland has a pretty good handle on the AMBER Alert System, claiming a greater than 90% success rate finding missing and abducted children. Debbie Flory heads the Maryland AMBER Alert program. She sheds some light on the reasons for such an excellent success rate.

Eleven-year-old Caitlyn Virts became the subject of the first alert issued in over two years. Her situation was addressed immediately and the system worked:

  • Emergency status was established when her mother was found dead in the home. Caitlyn and her sex offender father were missing.
  • The alert was immediately issued on Friday morning and was spread to surrounding states by the afternoon.
  • Caitlyn and her father were found in a hotel in South Carolina. She was safe and her father was charged with murder.

Amber Hagerman’s situation seems like it would have been a textbook win for the alert system.

  • Neighbors reported screams. A 78-year-old machinist named Jimmie Kevil reported the abduction describing Amber being forced into a vehicle. Kevil says of the abductor, “He caught her right up under the arm. He pulled her off the bike, and the bike fell to the ground. I knew something was wrong.”
  • Amber was wearing a gray shirt covered with multi-colored hand prints and pink jeans. She was described as being four feet seven inches tall, weighing eighty pounds, and having brown hair. Her hair was in a ponytail at the time of her abduction. Her abductor was a man driving a late model black truck.

The key to effectiveness is to execute the plan within minutes of the situation, and to adhere to plan procedures. Had this alert system been in place at the time of Amber’s abduction, her chances of survival would have increased significantly. Her situation was ideal as it established dangerous abduction from the very beginning, just like Caitlyn’s.

The high-tech additions to the plan, like the WEA system, are in place and ready to be put to use. Perhaps with more training and shared procedures among jurisdictions, it can issue alerts more efficiently and effectively to save people’s lives.

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