August 7, 2013: The new national Amber Alert system, administered by the Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA), debuted on Monday when one, and possibly two, children were abducted after the murder of their mother in San Diego. As Tony Perry and Joseph Serna write in this morning's Los Angeles Times:
... the alerts were transmitted on an exclusive frequency that can reach tens of thousands of people at the same time -- even if those people are crowded into one place, such as a stadium, and even, as some users discovered this week, if a cellphone is set to silent.
“It’s a needle in a haystack,” said Bob Hoever, who runs the Amber Alert program for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “But the more eyes and ears we have, the smaller the haystack becomes and more likely we’ll rescue a child.”
In the San Jose Mercury, the new system was explained thoroughly by Robert Salonga:
...The alerts were part of a national Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program, which was rolled out at the beginning of the year and has expanded as wireless carriers have refined their infrastructure to accommodate the new system and as more people upgrade to smartphones with the function built in.
Monday's alert was the first to be issued statewide. In previous instances, including cases in San Jose and Oakland, the alerts were targeted to a specific geographic region. The California Highway Patrol, which serves as the clearinghouse for the dispatches, expanded its reach [in Monday's case] because of concerns the suspect was either headed for Canada or Texas.
The system is opt-out: cellphone users -- depending on the service carrier -- can adjust which alerts they get through their phone settings. Besides the Amber Alert, there are "imminent threat" alerts, covering events like natural disasters, and "presidential" alerts concerning matters of national security or concern. Users cannot opt out of the presidential alerts.
In a new development Monday people with non-smartphone cellphones received free text messages with the Amber Alerts. Additionally, non-wireless emergency systems sent automated messages to landlines, and in some instances, TV watchers saw their pay-per-view programs interrupted with the alerts, all products of long-existing "Reverse 911" systems in each county being deployed...
... Instead of relying on voluntary subscribers, the system uses local cell towers to send alerts to any WEA-enabled phone in the targeted area regardless of whether a user's cellphone service is based there. That way local residents with out-of-town area codes and visitors in an affected area will be notified. It also means that when you go out of town, you won't get alerts from back home.
Law enforcement where an abduction occurs must go complete a methodical process to ensure the incident warrants such a widespread alert. Once a high-ranking supervisor is satisfied that Amber Alert criteria are met -- child victim, imminent danger and specific vehicle information like a license plate number -- police contact the CHP in Sacramento and its 24-hour Emergency Notification and Tactical Alert Center. Concurrently, the Department of Homeland Security was notified, and the WEA alert is then issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children