Amber Alert sends wireless users in frenzy

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013 - 11:05 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013 - 8:20 pm

On Monday night, the California Highway Patrol issued a statewide Amber Alert for two children kidnapped in San Diego County. And moments later, at 10:54 p.m., thousands of cell phones buzzed with high-pitched, 10-second sound and text message.

The alert described the car and license plate number believed to be driven by James Lee DiMaggio, suspect for the Sunday night murder of Christina Anderson, 44, and the abduction of her two children, Hannah Anderson, 16, and Ethan Anderson, 8.

The notification is part of a nationwide wireless alert program that started in January. Millions of cell phone users receive a free, automatic notification whenever there's an Amber Alert in their region with the intention of helping law enforcement locate abducted children.

It replaced a 2005 opt-in program, which had about 700,000 users, and alerts people who own "newer" wireless, which come with an automatic emergency alert system built in. AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are among the providers who take part in the alert system.

In the social media world, people expressed anger and confusion at being woken up in the middle of the night - especially by a system many never knew existed.

Some reported that the alerts took over their televisions and TiVo systems as well as phones, and others complained about getting multiple, repeat alerts.

Cell phone owners can opt out of program by going into their phone's settings and finding the "Government Alerts" section under notification settings.

Contrary to common belief, the alert was not issued by the CHP. It's actually a larger effort by CTIA-The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit representing wireless communication industry, the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their overarching Wireless Emergency Alerts system rolled out in April 2012, and it includes presidential alerts and imminent threat alerts on top of Amber Alerts.

"The AMBER Alert program was based on the idea that when armed with the right information, we can all play a part in bringing abducted children home safely," said John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in a 2012 statement.

The notifications are geographically-specific, so a Californian traveling in New York on Monday would not have received the alert, but out-of-towners visiting California would be notified, according to a CTIA press release.

Jaime Coffee with CHP said she had never seen the alerts used in the Sacramento area before. CTIA could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Call The Bee's Janelle Bitker, (916) 321-1027. Follow her in Twitter @JanelleBitker.

Read more articles by Janelle Bitker

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