Amber alerts expand to Internet

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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As President Bush announced plans to help expand the Amber Alert system

nationwide, America Online Inc. unveiled its service to send the text alerts

about abducted children via the Internet.

Beginning in November, Amber Alert texts — as issued by law enforcement

officials — will be sent via an AOL Alerts and Reminders service that the

company will launch later this month.

The alerts will be targeted to members based on the states in which

they reside. So far, about 95 percent of the states, counties and cities that have

Amber systems in place have agreed to participate in the AOL program, which

was launched in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited

Children (NCMEC). AOL members can choose to receive alerts on their computer

screens via e-mail or on mobile phones or pagers.

Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesman, said 50,000 members have already pre-registered for the free, non-commercial service since it was announced Oct. 1. "That's speaks to the power...of the online community and willingness to share in a worthy goal," he said, adding that the company has 28 million members.

The alerts will be "geo-targeted" to a city, county or state depending on the regional or state Amber plan. Graham said AOL intends to expand the program to include subscribers of its instant messaging service. He said the more people are educated about the Amber program and have the service, the more eyes and ears are out there to help law enforcement save an abducted child.

Two weeks ago, another company — New York City-based Fine Point Technologies Inc. — announced

it also had software to deploy Amber Alerts via the Internet.

"We're eager to leverage this technology to any and all of these regional

systems," said Antonia Townsend, the company's vice president of marketing

and corporate development, adding that the messaging technology is deployable

now and could also be used for other types of emergency updates, such as

storm warnings. Townsend said that Fine Point, which develops software for

Internet service providers and other cable and telecommunications companies,

became involved when an Alabama-based ISP client wanted the technology to

carry Amber Alerts. The software resides in a subscriber's system and a

message pops up when an alert is issued. She said an ISP has to follow the

Amber guidelines that govern the media in a participating region or state.

Although there is a cost for the service, Townsend said Fine Point would

try to accommodate clients to carry the technology. The company "in no way"

is competing with AOL regarding this product, she said, adding that AOL

is a "potential customer for us."

The voluntary Amber system is a partnership between law enforcement

agencies and broadcasters, who use the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to air

a description of a missing child and/or suspected kidnapper. Some states

also are using electronic highway billboards to deliver alerts.

The 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. Since the original program was formed, 66

modified versions have been adopted at the local, regional and state levels.

The program is credited with recovering 31 children and teens so far.

On Oct. 2, Bush held a White House conference on missing, exploited

and runaway children, announcing support for a bill that would strengthen

and widen the system. He also said the Justice Department would establish

an Amber Alert coordinator who would help state and local officials develop

and enhance the systems. The attorney general and the Transportation secretary

would also provide $10 million in existing funds to develop training and

education programs, upgrade emergency alert systems and facilitate use of

overhead electronic highway billboards, among other systems.

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