(POLL) Hannah Anderson Rescued: Is the Digital AMBER Alert Working?

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I got back last last night from a weekend outside cell service to news that was an incredible relief: 16-year-old Hannah Anderson, the teenage girl who had been abducted by a friend of the family also suspected of killing her mother and brother, had been rescued in Idaho by FBI agents.

Anderson was discovered by horseback riders who saw her with her abductor, James DiMaggio, in wild country, looking "scared." The riders said they obeyed their gut feeling not to confront the pair, but felt "something was not right." According to CNN,

After the riders got home, they turned on the TV and realized they had stumbled upon the objects of an intense manhunt across the West. An image of the girl was in an Amber Alert, the child abduction alert system.

Hannah Anderson
Hannah Anderson in a photo released by the San Diego Sheriff's Department. (Image: © San Diego Sheriff's Department/ZUMAPRESS.com)

I couldn't be more glad that the alert helped find Hannah. I'm still concerned about the mobile phone version of the alert, though. Here's how it works.

The Digital AMBER Alert Explained

  • The digital AMBER alert is part of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and wireless carriers as part of the WARN Act passed in 2006.
  • There are three classes of threat notification: AMBER (for abducted children in grave danger), Imminent Threat (for things like tornadoes headed your way), and Presidential (for national emergencies).
  • You can turn off AMBER alerts and emergency alerts, but not Presidential alerts (we haven't had one of those yet).
  • The alarm sound and vibration frequency are loud, unique, and designed to be noticeable. They sound a lot like the Emergency Broadcast System alerts on TV and radio. You are not able to change the alarm sound on your phone. Here's a sample (careful, LOUD):
  • If your phone is set to vibrate, you are not supposed to hear the alarm sound, though I've read lots of reports that the alarms on some carriers do not respect either vibrate or "do not disturb/sleep" settings. In any case, you will at least receive the unique vibrate signal if you have the alert enabled.
  • Alerts are only sent if officials decide there is a "critical emergency" in your location.

Like a lot of people, I missed the news that this system was rolling out and that my carrier had adopted it. So last week, when I was awakened by the familiar emergency alarm sound blaring, I panicked. Was my house on fire? Cops outside? Did I miss an earthquake? I was primed to act immediately -- to spring into action to save my family's life if necessary.

If the alert had been about any of those situations, it would have saved my life. But to me, AMBER Alerts are different. I was at home, asleep. Due to the alert's lack of information or links, I had to Google Hannah's situation, and learned that she could have been anywhere. I was left feeling frustrated that I could take no action to help, and so terrible for Hannah and her family -- and also adrenaline-choked and anxious from the alarm noise itself. I ended up also Googling how to change the settings on my phone, and was really flabbergasted to learn that I could only turn it on or off.

The New York Times reported the same concern last month, after New Yorkers were woken up around 4 a.m. after a 7-month-old boy was abducted from a foster care agency.

Dozens of readers vented their frustration over the unexpected early wake-up on The New York Times’s Web site, with one man suggesting it might have annoyed people to the point that they would turn off future alerts, and others questioning whether an alert would really help find the child.

The baby WAS found, though, and police credited his rescue to a tipster responding to the AMBER alert. The story did not specify whether the alert had been received on a phone.

It's not just the notifications; it's also the limitations of the emergency message that are frustrating. In a story last week called New Digital AMBER Alerts Could Create a Backlash, Steve Henn of NPR talked with Robert Hoever of The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:

Hoever worries that sending these Amber Alerts to millions of mobile phones with little context could create a backlash. Right now the alerts are delivered on a dedicated frequency used only in emergencies. The messages are limited to 90 characters. There are no links allowed, no phone numbers and no pictures. It's a user interface that is hard to love.

On the other hand, user TJBUSMC1973 on the Apple discussions board
responded in a way I hadn't even thought of, one that makes these alerts VERY immediate and real to her:

For me, personally, as a parent, I don't mind Amber alerts. If I got an Amber alert at 3 a.m., that stated that there was a kidnapping a few miles away? I'd be staying up the rest of the night, to keep watch over my family.

That morning, I turned off the alert on my phone, sent feedback to Apple and the FCC, and immediately subscribed to @Amber_Alert on Twitter. And then, while researching and writing this post, I decided to turn it back on. I'll live with it for now, because AMBER alerts save lives. I hope that, until we can adjust the system, other people will too.

Is the digital AMBER alert system working the way it should to reach as many people as possible about abducted children in grave danger? Share your opinion by clicking on the Swipp smiley face below and moving the slider to give your score, then pressing the Swipp It button to enter your rating.

Now tell us if you think the warning system could be improved. Choose as many answers as apply to you:

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