Amber Alert merger nears finish

A Web-based network combining states' systems for reporting child abductions is expected to launch nationwide soon.

A nationwide Amber Alert system that takes separate state systems and merges them into a single network and Web portal is expected to go live in the next month or so.

The new system has been in development for the past 14 months, and a four-state pilot test led by Washington state officials recently concluded. The production system is being tested now and initially will be a project between Washington and Arizona when it first goes live, though other states are expected to join soon after.

As many as 49 states have Amber Alert systems in place or are planning them, said Chris Warner, president and chief executive officer of Engaging and Empowering Citizenship and director of the new Amber Alert 911 network (www.amberalert911.org). The new system will be capable of broadcasting alerts nationwide.

Now when a child is abducted, Amber Alerts are broadcast by state authorities, usually using the states' emergency alert systems. The bulletins include descriptions of the child, the alleged abductor and any vehicles they may be riding in.

The new system will be Web-based and far more detailed and precise, Warner said.

When a first responder such as a law enforcement officer receives notification of an abduction, they will log on to the national system with a secure key via the Web portal and enter a description of the abduction, including the site of the abduction, any photos and so on. The system then produces a "radius map" of the boundaries of the area the abductor could have moved through over any given time.

The map is generated using algorithms supplied by geospatial systems vendor ESRI, Warner said. The system automatically contacts all of the interested stakeholders within the boundaries of the map with the details of the abduction. The radius of the map and the number of stakeholders alerted increase over time.

"The instant the information is updated on the Web site, then it is also updated on every Web site in the system," Warner said.

However, he added, the beauty of the system is that only those stakeholders who are within the boundaries of the radius map are flagged about the abduction, which does away with the "all parties" Amber Alerts that people say now waste the time of those who may not need to be reacting to the alert.

Citizens will also be able to sign up for free updates on abductions through any communications medium, including wireless phones and pagers, Warner said.

Security for Amber Alert 911 is being provided by Symantec Corp., which will be using its 24-hour monitoring service and supplying Gateway Security 5400 firewalls and Symantec ManHunt network intrusion-prevention technology.

Other companies donating products and resources include Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and New Technology Management Inc.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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