Texts on children gone missing startle as cell phones shriek to life

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LOS ANGELES -- The next time a child is abducted near you, your cell phone may shriek to life with an alert message.

A new national Amber Alert system officially rolled out earlier this month to millions of cell phones, and because the alerts are automatically active on most newer phones, the messages have already taken tens of thousands of people by surprise.

The newly expanded emergency alert system is an effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update the way it reaches people with new technologies. But local officials and others worry that the lack of public education and some initial stumbles may undermine the FEMA program's purpose, especially when people are startled or annoyed and then choose to opt out.

Lisa Rott was jolted from her sleep at 1:44 a.m. earlier this month in her Sarasota, Fla., home. A high-pitched tone sounded in spurts for about 10 seconds while her phone buzzed multiple times. Initially, Ms. Roth, 50, was worried that something had happened to her elderly mother. Then she saw the message: "Emergency Alert: Amber Alert. An Amber Alert has been issued in your area. Please check local media."

"I thought it was spam," said Ms. Rott, who works for AT&T as a process engineer. And because her cell phone has a New Jersey number, she wasn't sure exactly where the alert originated. The next morning, Ms. Rott searched online for both New Jersey and Florida incidents, yielding one likely possibility -- hours away from her home.

"What are we supposed to do?" she said. "They're not telling us what to do, they're not even telling us what to look for in our area."

Dozens of people have taken to Facebook and Twitter to comment on being scared by their phone's activity and frustrated by the lack of information.

FEMA officials said they are aware of the confusion that the Amber Alerts have caused and are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to include more information in the text messages.

The federal agency requires people sending out the alerts to be trained and to ensure that the alerts meet specific criteria. But officials are still working on trying to determine whether an alert should be sent out in the middle of the night, what information to provide and how best to use the system, said Damon Penn, who oversees the FEMA emergency alerts system. The agency has started an education campaign, he said.

"My biggest concern is that people, if they don't understand what it means ... will opt out of the program," said Bob Hoever, a director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The organization activates the messages seen on billboards and now cell phones, once officials tell them an Amber Alert is necessary. Since the program's inception in 1996, Amber Alerts have helped officials safely return at least 602 children, Mr. Hoever said.

So far, 19 Amber Alerts have been issued under this new system in 14 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon and Washington, according to figures kept by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

University of Nevada-Reno criminal justice professor Timothy Griffin has studied Amber Alerts for the past eight years. He said he favored an Amber Alert system that was more targeted, but his research also questioned whether the system's effectiveness had been oversold.

"Amber Alerts, in most cases, make no difference whatsoever," Mr. Griffin said. "Even when you look at ones where Amber Alerts make a difference, it doesn't happen fast, within that crucial three-hour difference," that the alerts are supposed to target. But he said he was hoping that this system would prove him wrong.

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