Amber Alerts crossing state lines

The public and private sectors are boosting their support for a national network to notify citizens when children are kidnapped.

As part of the Transportation Department's fiscal 2005 budget, DOT officials requested $15 million to educate the public about the Amber Alert network, which is used to spread the word about abductions as soon as they occur. Many state government officials post alerts on highway message signs, and funding will support those efforts.

This will be the second year of funding for the program. Last year, DOT officials allocated $20 million to the Federal Highway Administration, which allowed state officials to customize Amber Alert plans.

Because kidnappers can cross state lines with their victims, however, Amber Alerts must be part of a national network, officials said. For example, AmberAlert911.org is a Web portal that allows first responders to disseminate information about missing children to other law enforcement agencies and highway departments nationwide.

Officials at two national public announcement networks, Pets911.com and Earth911.com, formed the foundation of AmberAlert911 two years ago. "This consortium took the existing [Emergency Alert System] and together brought all the players in the room," said Chris Warner, founder and chief executive officer of the Amber Alert Web Portal Consortium and co-underwriter for the portal, adding that the system is now fully operational.

The portal allows first responders to enter an alert into a secure network, sometimes directly from their vehicles. Photographs and sketches of suspects and victims can also be uploaded to the portal. State police then approve an alert, and it goes to other law enforcement and transportation officials, who program the information into the message systems. The real-time content can be sent to other officials via any communication device, including e-mail, wireless phones, pagers and fax machines. DOT officials can put the information onto highway message boards, directing the public to turn on the radio or call 511 for more information.

Although state officials control the system locally, the portal works across state borders. Some states want citizens to turn on the radio or call 911 or 511. Washington and Arizona are the only states on the national network, but the remaining 48 states could join within a year, Warner said.

Officials in all 50 states approved the plan last year, and the network, with the help of many private-sector partners such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Symantec, launched in July. The network is free to government and public users, who can sign up to receive alerts on their wireless phones, pagers, handheld devices and PCs.

State emergency alert systems can take hours to activate, but the portal works at the speed of light, Warner said. "It's pretty rewarding to have all these states supporting a uniform action," he said.

Soon, advertisements with celebrities such as NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and former NBA player Charles Barkley will get out the message that if "you're dumb enough to take a child, we'll all be looking for you, ...and you'll get caught in a [matter] of minutes," Warner said.

According to the Amber Alert portal, time is the enemy when it comes to finding abducted children. Seventy-four percent of kidnappers who kill abducted children do so within three hours of taking them. Message system technology combats the time barrier with real-time information. AmberAlert911 works in conjunction with state transportation departments and helps them to transmit messages.

Success in Arizona

Since September 2002, Arizona has had 18 Amber Alert activations and 18 successful recoveries of children using electronic road signs. "We've got a pretty good success rate going," said Art Brooks, president and CEO of the Arizona Broadcasters Association and coordinator of Arizona Amber Alert. Arizona's plan is dependent on the Emergency Alert System, which is built into every TV and radio station in the state. State officials also work with lottery ticket distributors, who print Amber Alerts on tickets in 2,600 convenience stores.

"Right now, we're moving into the next generation of technology — and that's the Web portal, which will activate cell phones, pagers, fax machines, e-mails," Brooks said. "It will get the text message out, in all forms of communication."

First responders are critical to Arizona's portal plans. They enter kidnapping information into the Amber Alert portal. Then, state transportation officials receive an e-mail and a text message with details about the abduction. That message goes into an electronic signboard message: "Arizona Amber Alert Now in Effect Tune to Local Radio Station."

Federal DOT officials have allocated $400,000 to each state for Amber Alert programs. In Arizona, state officials are using some of the money to educate the public about Amber Alerts, said Tim Wolfe, assistant state engineer for transportation technology. He said the state has 120 signs — 60 in Phoenix and 60 scattered throughout the state. The portal formats Amber Alert messages and other messages relayed by the department of public safety and the Emergency Alert System to fit on the electronic signs.

Arizona has several modes of communication once an Amber Alert is raised besides the electronic message signs. They include a pager system, a 511 phone number, e-mail alerts and the state transportation department's Web site, az511.com.

Washington state's portal automatically sends a formatted message to state transportation officials via e-mail, pager and fax. Officials' goal for the upcoming year is to get other states to link to the portal, said Donna Wells, a public information officer for the state's Information Services Department.

Highway electronic messages

Federal officials have allocated money under the national Amber Alert program for state government officials to improve highway message signs to post information about missing children. The signs can display electronic messages in real time. Alerts might have information such as "Child Abduction" or "Amber Alert" on the first line, the suspect's vehicle information on the second line and how to respond on the third. A minimum exposure of at least two seconds per line works best. However, sometimes the term "Amber Alert" can be unclear to drivers who confuse the kidnapping alarm with terrorist threat-level colors, according to a Federal Highway Administration fact sheet.

The Amber Plan Implementation Assistance Program provided up to $20 million in fiscal 2004 in grants to states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia for messaging enhancements. The money has gone toward providing wide-area alerts to motorists and enhancing communications among public safety, law enforcement and transportation officials to improve notifications of child abductions.

As of Oct. 20, officials in 19 states had submitted applications for the program. Sixteen states have been approved and received grants; the other three applications are under negotiation. The states that have received funding are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington.

The Amber Alert system was named for a 9-year-old Texas girl, Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and killed in 1996. Amber also stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

— Aliya Sternstein

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