New Technology Gets AMBER Alerts to More People, More Quickly

Dec 28, 2012

An AMBER Alert continued Friday for two boys missing from north Fulton County. 

Authorities believe the father of nine year old Ben Cleary and his seven year old brother, Henry, abducted the boys.

Ben Cleary, age 9, is the subject of an AMBER Alert.

"We've got some leads," Roswell Police Lt. James McGee told WABE. "We’re in the process of trying to vet those leads."

When the GBI Thursday issued the AMBER Alert, it set a series of new technologies into motion, changing how the alerts are received.

For about the past decade, if a child went missing and was thought to be in immediate danger, radio listeners and TV watchers heard emergency alert tones.

While beneficial, GBI spokesman John Bankhead says only delivering an AMBER Alert via broadcast has some shortcomings.

“You’d have somebody that kidnapped a child in a car, and if watched it on TV, that doesn’t do much unless they get in the car and ride somewhere later.  So we worked with the Department of Transportation to put it on the road signs.” 

As mobile technology and social media have expanded, so has the AMBER Alert system.

Authorities also believe Henry Cleary, age seven, was abducted by his father.

Now, electronic billboards pop up with the information. Text messages go out to cell phones. 

Starting next week, the national Wireless Emergency Alert system goes live, pushing notifications to any equipped-phone in an alert area. 

A system in freight trucks alerts drivers when they enter an active AMBER Alert. 

And those are just a few examples, says Robert Hover.  He’s with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which manages the system

“When there’s an Amber Alert out there, if you do a keyword search on Google– just put the word “amber” in there-- it will bring up first the active AMBER Alert.”

Facebook also notifies users.

There’s no doubt the alerts are reaching more people, and quicker.  But is better technology leading to better outcomes? 

Hover couldn’t point to specific data, but says anecdotally, yes.

“This is all based on a simple idea: the eyes and ears of many are much more effective than the eyes and ears of a few.”

A 2010 University of Nevada-Reno study, however, found AMBER Alerts rarely result in saving abducted children from “life-threatening” situations.

Instead, most successes involve what researchers call “benign abductors,” like when a father takes his own children.