SALISBURY, Md. – The words "AMBER Alert" have populated national headlines of late, and to great effect. Authorities found missing 16-year-old Hannah Anderson Saturday in Idaho, and fatally shot her abductor, James DiMaggio. They had been missing for a week. A 2-year-old Rhode Island boy was found unharmed Sunday, the same day an AMBER alert was issued.
The alert system, which originated in 1996, is now using smartphone technology to get the word out to as many people as possible, as fast as possible. Push-button alerts, which ping on your phone as soon as they're received, are part of the national effort to broadcast AMBER alert details.
Prior to 2013, smartphone users had to sign up for the notifications. At last count, about 700,000 did. However, in an effort to broaden their abducted child dragnet, multiple agencies, including the FCC and FEMA, now enroll smartphones automatically in the Wireless Emergency Alerts program. Using local cell towers, the signals are transmitted to all such mobile devices within the search area.
These types of alerts are nothing new. Smartphones receive alerts to update users on current sporting events, keep them informed with the latest news, and even shopping deals. In those cases, however, the user has knowingly signed up for the alerts. In the case of AMBER alert notifications, a phone will go off even if the user has not agreed to participate. That alarmed some folks in California, and some on Delmarva during recent severe weather. But "alarming" is exactly what these types of alerts are supposed to be. They're designed to grab one's attention; lives are at stake.
If someone really does not want to be bothered by them, they can disable them on their device, or through their carrier.
Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis is excited to have more tools in the hands of citizens. "The public is our eyes and ears. There's no question about it, and we've solved many crimes because of the public's input," Lewis said.
Dawn Herbert, who is a mother of seven, is also supportive of the initiative, and adds "When an emergency like that happens, whether it's a child abducted or the weather, with the world the way it is, the sooner we know about it, the better."
Since the program is location-based, where a phone is registered does not matter. Where that phone is, does. So if someone from New York were visiting Delmarva when an AMBER alert went out for Delmarva, that New Yorker's phone would receive an alert. That is, provided it wasn't disabled.