Tech drives Amber alerts

The Amber Alert network works because of information and communications technology, officials said today as they marked the anniversary of the incident that was a catalyst for creating the system.

Amber Alert network officials today reflected on technology's role in saving missing children, on the anniversary of Amber Hagerman's murder and kidnapping. The Justice Department also announced a national public awareness campaign, where the National Association of Broadcasters will issue public service announcements featuring John Walsh of America's Most Wanted and Elizabeth Smart's father. The Amber Alert system was named for Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl who was abducted while riding her bicycle and then murdered nine years ago today. The acronym Amber also stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

Some states have posted public service announcements on their Web sites, while others say no Amber Alerts have been issued, said Catherine Sanders, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. The trademark electronic message boards will not broadcast. "Nothing like the message boards would be used today, because we don't want to desensitize people," she said.

New Jersey State Police officials say technology seeps into almost every aspect of Amber Alerts. The state consults databases, including criminal databases, an internal database and federal National Crime Information Center databases, to start looking for children. "With the touch of the key, from here at West Trenton, we're connected with the Department of Transportation," which relays messages to changeable message boards, "which connects with the Port Authority bridges in New York and Philadelphia," said New Jersey State Police Lt. Kevin Rehmann. Computers drive the message boards. Also, the state simultaneously e-mails photos and faxes other descriptors to all the news organizations.

All this can be done in a relatively short time. "To get as many faxes out as we do, under this system would take hours," Rehmann said. "If we're looking for a blue Ford with license plate, (for example), abc123, we can continually scroll that on these message boards," he added. AMBER Alerts have contributed to the recovery of six children in New Jersey.

Terry Linza, Indiana Missing Children Clearing House administrative assistant, said, while her state's AMBER Alert Web site, www.amberalertindiana.com, is operative, it will not be updated today. "Most people refer only to the Web site when there is an alert," she said.

However, New Mexico State Police's Lt. Jimmy Glascock may update www.dps.nm.org/amber_alert/index.htm soon. He's currently looking at programs through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and evaluating other available software. "It's another tool in the toolbox," he said.

Bob Fisher, state coordinator for Nevada's Amber Alert Commission and CEO of the Nevada Broadcasters Association, differed from the crowd, saying technology is an extra, not a necessary tool. "While a Web site is important, a Web site doesn't mean much," he said. "An Amber Alert goes out to people in their cars," Fisher said, adding that websites cannot notify drivers. In Nevada, AMBER alerts have recovered about 14 children. One child abductor surrendered after his picture flashed throughout Las Vegas. "We are now speaking of AMBER alert as a deterrent," Fisher added.

AMBER Alert portals, such as www.amberalert911.org, allow first responders to disseminate information about missing children to other law enforcement agencies and highway departments nationwide. This week, Montana and Idaho will be added to the portal. However, some agencies are not up to speed on computers. "Technology is changing the face of communication and it is certainly enhancing something like AMBER Alert, but if we're going to go back to the anniversary of Amber Hagerman's abduction and murder, AMBER alert succeeds to get the word out through TV and radio," Fisher said.

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