News Column

Amber Alert Startles Cell Phone Owners

August 7, 2013
Cell phone users were startled by an Amber Alert notification.

Late Monday, the California Highway Patrol issued a statewide Amber Alert for two children believed kidnapped in San Diego County. And moments later, tens of thousands of cellphones in Sacramento buzzed with a high-pitched, 10-second tone and a brief text message.

Area residents may have been extra startled. They said Amber Alert notifications -- used in an effort to recover abducted children -- have not automatically appeared in this fashion on their cellphones in Sacramento before.

Many found it jarring because it disturbed their bedtime rituals at 11 p.m., and confusing because they had no idea their phones even had such capabilities. Others reported the alert flashed on their televisions.

It created an instant uproar on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

The message itself was a car description: blue Nissan Versa with California license plate 6WCU986. The car was believed to be driven by James Lee DiMaggio, who is suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and abducting one or both of her two children, Hannah Anderson, 16, and Ethan Anderson, 8. Authorities said DiMaggio might have been on his way to Canada from Boulevard, a small community in San Diego County.

DiMaggio's whereabouts remained unknown late Tuesday.

It wasn't clear how helpful the Amber Alert was. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said it couldn't decipher which tips on the case might have come from Amber Alert or other sources.

The Amber Alert notification is part of a nationwide Wireless Emergency Alert program, which started in April 2012.

When there's an emergency situation, alerts are automatically sent to millions of wireless phones in the specified, affected region.

On top of Amber Alerts, presidential alerts related to national security, and imminent threat alerts related to natural disasters are also sent out.

"We don't want alert fatigue," said Bob Hover of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "It's being done judiciously."

For some Sacramentans, Monday's alert was so shocking that they disabled the system immediately.

It varies by phone, but most can go through their phone's settings and find a section called "Government Alerts" under notification settings.

William Ishmael, a 67-year-old Sacramento artist, turned the notifications off, as he was disturbed by the loud sound and the late hour.

"It's startling," he said. "Your phone is screaming at you, and you don't know what's going on."

Dwight Hansen echoed Ishmael, though Hansen ultimately reactivated the feature on Tuesday morning. Most distressing was that the alert disappeared right when Hansen tried to read it. He searched through his text messages and emails, but it was gone.

"I had no idea what it was," said the 57-year-old lobbyist in Sacramento. "I had to go on Facebook to figure it out."

"Gotta be honest, that Amber alert text scared the hell outta me & my wife. Terrifying noise from my phone that I didn't know it could make," Kieron Slaughter put on Twitter.

"Thanks amber alert for startling me and almost making me fall off the treadmill," tweeted Christopher Martinez.

Even though Ishmael could read the message, he felt it wasn't informative enough. Meanwhile, others complained that they received multiple, repeated alerts, stretching to 2 a.m.

According to Brian Josef of CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the wireless communication industry in this effort, the repeated texts and disappearing texts might be the fault of individual phones.

However, the notifications purposefully expire to keep information up-to-date. And they're intended to alert people to look up more information elsewhere, Hover said.

In terms of the late-night alerts, Jaime Coffee of the CHP said the agency issues an alert at any hour if a child is in danger.

"It's doesn't matter if it's 11 p.m. or 2 a.m.," she said. "The goal is to activate as quickly as possible."

Coffee emphasized that Amber Alert is used only in abduction cases when the child is in imminent danger of serious injury or death.

And the alerts also need concrete information that could help locate the child -- in under 90 characters and without photos, links or phone numbers. That leaves vehicle information, as was the case Monday.

About 100 Amber Alerts have been sent to wireless devices nationwide since Jan. 1.

Even though this was the first statewide incident, such alerts have been issued elsewhere in California: Santa Clara and Orange County.

The program replaced a 2005 opt-in version, which had nearly 800,000 users. Now newer cellphones -- most made in 2011 or later -- have an automatic emergency alert system built in. AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are among the 98 percent of wireless providers who participate, Josef said.

While the CHP issues the Amber Alerts, the actual phone notification program is a joint effort of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, CTIA, Federal Communications Commission and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There have been success stories. The first was in February when a 8-month-old baby was kidnapped in Minneapolis.

Someone saw the car described in an Amber Alert notification in their own neighborhood and called the police.

"It's protecting the public," Josef said. "People are getting rescued because of these alerts."

Source: (c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters