Amber revolutionizes search for abducted children

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More than a year ago, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched a national campaign to expand an information system that helps find abducted children and teenagers, only 27 such systems existed nationwide, and only five of those had a statewide presence.

Today, the Amber Alert System, which relies on the Emergency Alert System (EAS), is used by 87 programs, 38 of which are statewide, said Joann Donnellan, a spokeswoman for the center, and the remaining 12 states plan such systems.

"But the best statistic is that 47 kids have been recovered thanks to this innovative program," she said.

Just in the past few months, the program — which enables law enforcement agents to quickly and simultaneously funnel information about recent abductions through radio and television — has taken a few technological steps and funding leaps.

Last August, California officials alerted motorists about the abduction of two teenage girls through electronic highway signs in addition to media coverage. Donnellan said that's been duplicated in other states.

Soon after, America Online Inc., in partnership with the center, said its subscribers could get alerts via e-mail, mobile phones, pagers or its instant messaging service about abductions. Alerts could be targeted to a city, county or state depending on the regional or state plan. New York City-based Fine Point Technologies Inc. also developed software to carry such alerts. Lincoln, Neb., is currently implementing a Web-based EAS system that would also provide statewide Amber alerts.

Last October, President Bush directed the Justice and Transportation departments to develop training and education programs to expand Amber, coordinated through the Office of Justice Programs. The departments provided $10 million from existing funds. Recently, the federal government earmarked another $2.5 million in the 2003 budget, while Bush has proposed still another $2.5 million in his 2004 budget.

Mary Louise Embrey, a spokeswoman at the Office of Justice Programs, said they are awaiting a congressional committee report to provide recommendations on how best to develop a coordinated program. "Certainly technology is part of what's being factored in to have an effective system." Embrey said.

The Transportation Department is providing up to $7 million in state grants to integrate intelligent transportation systems into existing or proposed Amber plans. The intent is to "facilitate, through the use of advanced technologies, the seamless coordination between law enforcement agencies and transportation communities necessary to implement an Amber Alert using changeable message signs or other traveler information systems," according to a department document.

Donnellan said Amber is not only "revolutionizing" the fight against child abductions through better communications systems, but is also having a ripple effect on different agencies.

"They've come together voluntarily to create an Amber program, and these are the same people that really need to be talking to each other when we're dealing with other state emergencies," she said. "That can only really benefit all of us."


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