There's a real Amber behind amber alerts

What happened to her, how amber alerts came to be—and if they ever work.

At this point, pretty much all of us have been woken up in the middle of the night or startled midday by a blaring sound coming from our smartphones, radios or TVs. Accompanying the jarring alarm is a message containing details about a child and/or their alleged abductor, information about a vehicle they might be in, their location within the province, and where they could be headed. It’s called an amber alert (aka an AMBER alert).

The purpose of an amber alert is for the general populace to act as an extra set of eyes and ears for law enforcement when a child has been abducted. The idea is that the more people who are aware of what to look for, the better the chance of retrieving that child (or children) unharmed and arresting the suspect before the situation ends in tragedy.

Who was the real Amber?

While the amber in amber alert is an acronym for America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response, that’s actually its secondary meaning. Amber alerts were in fact created following a tragic incident involving a young girl named Amber Hagerman.

In 1996, the nine-year-old was riding her bicycle with her brother in Arlington, Texas, when she was abducted in plain sight. A neighbour witnessed the abduction, as did Amber’s brother, Ricky, who went home to tell his family what happened. The police and media were called, and a search began. Four days later, her body was discovered in a creek less than 8 km from where she was taken. There are still no suspects in her murder.

How did amber alerts start?

Following media coverage of Hagerman’s murder and lobbying led by her parents and others for tougher laws governing kidnappers and sex offenders, the national sex offender registry and Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act were created. The first amber alert was launched in July of that year.

Over the next two years, participating radio stations alerted the public when there was a missing child. The program rolled out incrementally over the years, and by 2005, all 50 states and all Canadian provinces and territories had amber alert programs.

Amber alerts were first distributed using the emergency radio and TV response method. In 2002, people were able to sign up to receive the notifications digitally through their computers, pagers, and cell phones based on their geographic region and zip code. In 2018 in Canada, mobile devices were added to the mix.

Amber alerts are also distributed through digital signs on buses alerting drivers to turn on their radios (BC Translink), Ministry of Transportation message boards (Quebec) and highway signs, lottery crown terminals (Ontario), and free text message alerts issued by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA). You can also see them when searching the map feature through Google, Bing, and Facebook, and via social media channels like Twitter.

Amber alerts are typically issued province-wide, but they can also cross into bordering cities, provinces, or even states if it’s believed that the abductor could enter the U.S. from Canada or vice versa.

How do authorities decide when to issue an amber alert?

There are strict criteria for issuing an Amber Alert: the child must be under the age of 18, they must be believed to have been abducted and at risk of serious injury or death, and there must be a sufficient description of the child, the abductor, and/or the vehicle.

How often do amber alerts actually work?

Some question the efficacy of Amber Alerts and if they have actually saved lives (people wonder this especially deeply at 3 a.m. when they’ve been woken up). And the alerts have indeed been mired with misunderstandings, custody disputes, hoaxes, and runaways.

Mother kisses top of baby's head. How motherhood changed the way I look at amber alertsBut they do make a difference. During the first month of operation in California in 2002, 12 of 13 children were recovered safely (the 13th was a misunderstanding). As of 2013, the NCMEC reports that 657 children had been recovered as a result of the program, and a 2014 Amber Alert Report indicates that 186 alerts were issued in the U.S. involving 239 children, 60 of which were taken by strangers or someone who wasn’t their legal guardian. As at April 2019, 957 children have been rescued in the U.S. specifically because of Amber Alerts.

Success stories often involve an astute citizen who heard the alert and noticed the abductor and/or child in their area, or spotted the car on the road.

Have any Canadian kids ever been saved by an amber alert?

Yes. In one Canadian case, a KFC employee noticed the abductor and child in their restaurant. In another, a civilian on his way home from work saw the suspect’s vehicle driving northbound on the highway and called it in.

Why do I get an alert when the child was last seen hundreds of kilometres from me?

Simply put: because people can get from their original location to a far-away city remarkably quickly, says Stacey Whaley, Staff Sergeant and Manager with Community Safety Services for the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). “We’ve had a few situations where the child was abducted in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] and located in Northwestern Ontario, in the Sarnia and Chatham area.” In another case, Whaley says a child was abducted in Sudbury, Ont. and was located in Toronto just a few hours later. “I know it’s hard for some people to understand,” he says, “but I don’t want to be responsible for saying we don’t have to include this part of a province and then, lo and behold, a child is located and has been murdered, or something tragic has happened, because we made a decision not to include them in that alert.”

How might amber alerts change in the future?

The criteria for amber alerts likely won’t change, but the technology behind the emergency messaging system itself is evolving, says Whaley. The public might not see a difference in how the message is put out there, says Whaley, but the back-end process will be streamlined. There are also plans to better use social media to spread the word.

The backlash against the smartphone alerts

The majority of the public are very supportive, says Whaley. “But there’s pushback from angry people who don’t want to get woken up, or don’t want their privacy breached, mostly with cell phones.” You’ve probably heard of particularly irate people even calling 9-1-1 to complain about being awoken by an amber alert.

If you are unsure about the alerts, consider this. The next time you’re awoken in the middle of the night by one, tiptoe over to your kid’s room, where they’re safely tucked in bed, and know that somewhere, not too far away, another child isn’t so lucky. If there’s even a slight chance that the amber alert might help, it’s worth a few minutes of lost sleep or an annoying midday disruption to know that someone, somewhere, might be able to help bring that child home.

Read more:
How social media hashtags put your kid in danger—both online and in real life
Should we call strangers “tricky people” instead?

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