Right call on Amber Alert

Last week, over the course of several days, millions of cellphones across the Western United States buzzed like fire alarms — loudly and, to some, annoyingly — as authorities sent out an Amber Alert that appeared as a text requesting everyone to be on the lookout for a blue Nissan Versa from southeastern San Diego County.

No matter what they were doing or the hour they were doing it, everyone in California, Nevada, Washington state, Oregon and Idaho who owns a cellphone with the capacity to receive emergency messages got one about the car driven by the suspected kidnapper of 16-year-old Hannah Anderson. Californians are accustomed to seeing Amber Alerts posted on freeways. But no statewide Amber Alert, which is issued only for abducted children in critical danger, had been sent over cellphones before in California. The grating alert was not only startling and irritating to many cellphone users, but it seemed pointless if you weren't on a road or freeway.

And yet it worked. The breadth of the alert and the novel use of cellphone messaging to get it out kept the missing girl and her alleged kidnapper, James Lee DiMaggio, constantly in the news. Several people riding horses through the remote Idaho wilderness happened upon the pair, then later saw a television report on the Amber Alert and notified local authorities. That put in motion the search that led to Anderson's rescue.

"This Amber Alert, while it's a minor inconvenience to people, literally saved the life of this child," said Robert Hoever, director of special programs at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. So authorities made the right call when they decided to use what's known as cell broadcasting to transmit the Amber Alert message. There are some kinks to be worked out. Some people got the buzzing message multiple times. That shouldn't happen.

But overall, the loud phone messages did what they were supposed to do — they got everyone's attention, including the media's. To make sure they work in the future, they should be used sparingly and judiciously. The last thing authorities need is for people to become so irritated by frequent alerts that they disable the Amber Alert message function altogether (yes, it's doable) or so inured to the sound that they treat it like a random car alarm going off in the night and ignore it.

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