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Choosing a new approach to AMBER alerts

There’s nothing more critical to the mission of law enforcement than protecting children who can’t protect themselves. That’s the philosophy that the Kentucky State Police emphasize in using the Commercial Mobile Alert System with some AMBER Alerts

By Becky Lewis
Tech Beat Magazine

There’s nothing more critical to the mission of law enforcement than protecting children who can’t protect themselves. That’s the philosophy that Capt. John Bradley and the Kentucky State Police emphasize in their approach to using the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) with some AMBER Alerts.

“This reaches everybody,” Bradley says of CMAS, which automatically sends a loud tone and the AMBER Alert message to all cellphones physically located within a designated geographic area. (For more details on Wireless Emergency Alerts/CMAS, see http://www.fema.gov/wireless-emergency-alerts#0). Users may opt out by changing settings on their phone or calling their carrier, but many are unaware the system even exists.

“Law enforcement agencies need to get out in front of this and tell citizens they may get these alerts. It’s not something they register for, and even though your cellphone might have a completely different area code, if you’re traveling through an area when the system is activated, you’ll get the alert,” Bradley says.

Although the Kentucky State Police see the implementation of CMAS for AMBER Alerts as a valuable tool, it has made the process of deciding when and how to issue alerts more complicated. Because of those complications, some states may choose to opt out entirely from using CMAS for AMBER Alerts, and others may avoid the issues by using it with every alert.

“We’re not going to box ourselves in this way,” Bradley says. “We’ll look at this on a case-by-case basis to determine if use of CMAS is appropriate. We want to use it only when it is meaningful to do so.”

Instead of either “all or nothing,” Kentucky has chosen a different approach, one that could be used as a model. To start, Bradley explains, the U.S. Department of Justice has issued nationwide recommendations on the criteria to determine whether a situation warrants an AMBER Alert. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has additional recommendations on the use of CMAS. For example, recommendations say to consider a moratorium on its use between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., although Kentucky may still use it during those hours if the information is strong and solid.

“If it’s 10 in the morning and we have vehicle information, the decision to use it is easy. If it’s 2 a.m. and the information is sketchy, maybe not. But what if it’s 2 a.m. and we have a license number and a specific route of travel?” Bradley says.

Other best practices adopted by the state include the use of three specific geographic zones, with the alert possibly going to only one or two of the three, and establishment of an agreed-upon template for information, such as vehicle description and specific roads of interest.

Although Kentucky has yet to put these practices into use, CMAS for AMBER Alerts has already proven successful since its Jan. 1, 2013, implementation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Its most notable use came in Minnesota, which became the first state to use it successfully with the safe recovery of 8-month-old Carlos Orosco on February 20.

“We’re thankful that AMBER Alerts in Kentucky are relatively rare,” Bradley says. “Some years we might issue four or five, then we might go a couple of years without issuing even one. Still, we’re going to use every tool at our disposal when we need to issue an AMBER Alert. These days, everybody has a cellphone, and this gives us another really effective tool to help recover missing children.”

Capt. John Bradley, who can be reached at (502) 564-1020 or john.bradley@ky.gov, gave a presentation on this topic at the June 2013 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Technology Institute for Law Enforcement. For more information on NIJ Technology Institutes, contact NIJ Senior Law Enforcement Program Manager Mike O’Shea at (202) 305-7954 or michael.oshea@usdoj.gov. 

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