05/26/2006

St. Louis police want to text-message alerts about child abductions

By Michael Shaw
Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.

Carriers in program

The wireless carriers participating in the SARAA program include: Cingular, Sprint/Nextel, Verizon, T- Mobile and U.S. Cellular.

To sign up for free, log on to

www.wirelessamberalerts.org

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Starting today, St. Louis-area child abduction alerts can be sent via text message to mobile phones for good Samaritans who sign up for the free service.

Police are hoping wireless users who take the time to download games and ring tones also will help police track down missing children.

"We know that the first three hours after an abduction are critical in finding that child," said St. John Police Chief Terry Milam, chairman of the St. Louis Area Regional Abduction Alert, otherwise known as SARAA. "The whole thing is to use the eyes of the people driving on the streets and highways to help find an automobile used in an abduction."

SARAA covers 15 counties surrounding St. Louis, including those in Illinois. Missing-child alerts are broadcast on television and radio, appear on transportation departments' highway message boards and are sent to Metro bus and MetroLink drivers. The launching of the wireless program in the St. Louis area coincides with today being National Missing Children's Day.

The program to send out alerts via mobile phones began last year nationwide, and today marks the beginning of a major advertising campaign to get the country's estimated 200 million wireless users to sign up, police said.

Mobile users who can receive text messages can sign up at www.wirelessamberalerts.org. The program determines which alerts will be sent by the ZIP codes entered at the Web site. Advocates stressed that participants will receive messages only from their areas.

"It's not going to be spamming people in California with an alert from New Jersey," said Bob Hoever, director of special operations at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"We're trying to get a million people signed up," Hoever said. "Actually, we want everybody signed up."

The regional coordinator for SARAA, Belleville Police Sgt. Jim Dahm, said all major wireless carries were participating, including Cingular, Sprint/Nextel, Verizon, T- Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. The participating carriers make up 96 percent of all mobile phone service nationwide.

The alert system began in the St. Louis area in 2001, and since then, 23 SARAA alerts have been issued. All but three have resulted the safe return of the child, Dahm said. Many calls to police in response to abduction alerts came from mobile phones.

mshaw@post-dispatch.com e 618-624-2577

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