WASHINGTON Proponents of the Amber Alert Plan are applauding the passage of a national plan targeting kidnappers.
Some EAS observers, meanwhile, still worry about the growing pains associated with a national Amber Plan – one they fear could be rapidly inundated and rendered useless by unproductive listings.
Officials of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say the recovery in March of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl missing for nine months, and media attention resulting from that case helped persuade Congress to pass the national alert measure in April. President Bush signed the legislation.
Supporters of Amber – now an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response – received a boost to their efforts last year when the FCC amended the Emergency Alert System to include an event code specifically for abducted children. Previously, broadcasters had activated the Amber Plan as a Civil Emergency Message, which sometimes caused confusion to both broadcasters and the public.
Some broadcasters remain skeptical about the program and how it will be interlaced within the Emergency Alert System. They say more-localized plans have a higher likelihood of success. Supporters say a national system establishes protocol to allow neighboring jurisdictions to communicate more effectively in cases of interstate abductions.
Texas launched the first Amber Alert, which it named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, who was abducted and murdered in 1996. To date, 41 states have statewide programs. Another 50 local and regional jurisdiction Amber Alert Plans are in place. Bulletins are aired on radio and television outlets and on electronic highway signs.
“The bill ensures that Amber Plans become a vital law enforcement tool for every state and community, and that they are implemented in a consistent and meaningful manner,” said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Allen said the Amber Plan bill creates a position in the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee the communications network. The legislation allocates nearly $25 million to provide matching grants to states and localities to assist them in implementing new technologies designed to improve dissemination of Amber Alerts.
The national Amber Alert law will require law enforcement to have sufficient evidence that a child has been abducted and is in a life-threatening situation before an alert can be issued. Most local and state Amber plans already include those criteria to prevent overuse, a NCMEC spokesman said.
The national Amber Plan needs “tight controls” to be implemented properly, said Bill Croghan, CE for Lotus Broadcasting’s Las Vegas cluster and vice chair of Nevada’s EAS committee.
“If the national plan turns out to be too broad and poorly controlled, it will result in massive defections of broadcasters from the plan,” Croghan said.
Broadcaster participation in the new national Amber Alert Plan will remain voluntary. The NAB has supported a national plan. States will be required to submit reports to the U.S. Department of Justice on the effectiveness and status of their Amber Plans.
Opinions on the success of Amber Plans vary. NCMEC claims Amber Alerts have resulted in the safe return of 64 abducted children.
“Amber Plans have done the EAS a great deal of good as the first major source of non-weather-related local, regional and even state level activations,” said Richard Rudman, board secretary of the Partnership for Public Warning, a public-private partnership looking at ways to improve public warning delivery. “Amber developers have stressed plans and systems. Some adjustments are being made, but what you fix for Amber makes EAS better, and vice-versa.”
Clay Freinwald, SBE EAS committee chair, said, “Amber is a great example of what can be done with a program that has leadership on a national level. Most broadcasters support Amber because it is associated with doing the right thing.”
Critics of a national Amber Plan contend that sensationalized stories on child abduction recoveries make poor legislation and that Congress rushed through a national Amber Plan without considering its full impact upon the EAS system.
Bob Hensler, vice president of engineering for Colorado Public Radio, said, “The Amber Plan to me is nothing more than a feel-good ploy for politicians.”
He said he was glad that CPR does not yet carry Amber alerts. “If we do, it will be because of political reasons only.”
Mark Manuelian, chair of the EAS Primary Entry Point Advisory Committee, said, “A national Amber EAS Plan is a bad idea. However, a national plan of sharing information regarding abductions is a very good idea, but it needs to be done between the states at a law enforcement level.”
False Amber Alerts have occurred occasionally. The reported abduction of a Maryland girl in February triggered that state’s first Amber Alert. However, police later cancelled the alert saying the two-month-old girl’s father fabricated the story of his baby’s disappearance.