Amber Alerts on cellphones: Effective or annoying?

Federal, state and local agencies send cellphone messages to warn users of threats or emergencies.

Amber Alerts for a missing San Diego County girl were sent to people with cellphones in five states in the largest such wireless emergency notification to date.

Most anyone with a cellphone in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Idaho probably knows by now that there's a missing 16-year-old San Diego County girl who may have been abducted by a man driving a blue Nissan Versa with California plates.

Wireless text-like emergency alert messages accompanied by a high-pitched squeal were sent to cellphone users in those five states this week as authorities urged the public to be on the lookout for the car belonging to James Lee DiMaggio. He is suspected of killing Christina Anderson, the mother of missing teen Hannah Anderson, and her 8-year-old son, Ethan. The car was found in Idaho, authorities announced Friday. The whereabouts of DiMaggio and Hannah Anderson were not known.

While some people have found the cellphone alerts annoying, irrelevant and redundant ("This is among the most unintelligent, histrionic, intrusive programs ever. I felt like the San Diego police reached into my pocket," a Sacramento resident told The Los Angeles Times), authorities say such near-instantaneous blanket notification can be instrumental in saving children's lives.

Related: Suspected Calif. abductor's vehicle found in Idaho

Related: Californians startled by new cell phone AMBER alert system

The wireless Amber Alerts are relatively new — they started in January — and backers acknowledge there are some kinks to work out, such as why some people got the notification more than once on their phone.  

"This is a powerful tool. We ask the public to please be patient with us, please continue to participate in the Amber Alert program," said Robert Hoever, the person in charge of the program at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

LIFE-SAVER?

Hoever told MSN News that the mobile alerts, officially called Wireless Emergency Alerts, have been instrumental in saving children in at least two cases this year:

• In February, an abducted 8-month-old was found safe after a Minneapolis teen got a wireless alert on her cellphone, spotted the suspect's car and notified her father, who contacted police.

• In July, an 8-year-old Cleveland boy was reunited with his mother after people at a diner who got an alert on their cellphones spotted the suspect's vehicle, followed it and called police.

The wireless Amber Alert messages are issued in the most serious child-abduction cases. They are effective in reaching a broad, targeted audience because the messages are sent over a special wireless carrier channel and aren't affected by congestion that might disrupt regular cellphone calls and text messages.

Hoever said the determination to issue an Amber Alert is made by the local investigative agency, which then coordinates with others at the regional and state level if it's believed the alert should be broadcast to a wider area.

In the San Diego-area case, the alert was expanded statewide. California authorities then would have contacted Amber Alert coordinators in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho to request that statewide alerts be sent in those states, Hoever said.

"There is no national Amber Alert program. You don’t hit one button to hit the whole country. It’s a state-by-state plan," Hoever said.

It was the largest such wireless Amber Alert notification to date, he said.

As to why some cellphone users complained they got multiple alerts, Hoever said that's a technical glitch being worked on.

"Your phone should only receive it once," he said.

The cellphone Amber Alerts are part of a larger national emergency broadcasting system for handsets. Here's what you need to know about them:  

WHAT ARE THESE ALERTS AND WHY AM I GETTING THEM?

Wireless Emergency Alerts, also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, are text-like messages sent to mobile phones by authorized federal, state and government agencies to warn of an imminent threat or emergency. The system was authorized under the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act of 2006, and its availability has become more widespread in the past couple of years.

Most people formerly got these messages over the radio or on television, but since nearly all Americans now have a cellphone, Congress decided this was an effective way of communicating about potential dangers.

The alerts have a unique audible signal and the messages contain up to 90 characters. They are "location-aware" so you will automatically receive these alerts on your mobile phone when you are in the geographic area where an alert has been issued. Because the alerts are sent on a special wireless carrier channel they are not subject to cellphone voice or text congestion.

Agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service coordinate with wireless carriers to send the alerts to cellphones within a targeted area.

DO I HAVE TO SIGN UP TO GET THEM? DO I NEED TO PAY?

Users are not charged for the alerts and automatically receive them. If you have a phone enabled to receive this service (nearly all newer phones will be called "WEA-enabled"), you are automatically enrolled. If you're not sure, check with your carrier.

WHAT TYPE OF ALERTS ARE SENT?

There are three kinds of alerts:

  • Presidential Alerts — Alerts issued by the president or a designee about news of national concern. To date, no such alert has ever been issued.
  • Imminent Threat Alerts — Alerts that include severe manmade or natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, for which an imminent threat to life or property exists.
  • Amber Alerts — Alerts that meet the U.S. Department of Justice's criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child.

CAN I TURN THEM OFF?

Most phones have settings for turning off the alerts. Imminent Threat and Amber Alerts can be turned off, but per the WARN Act of 2006, no one can opt out of Presidential Alerts.

If you have an iPhone, Amber and Imminent Threat Alerts (also known as Emergency Alerts) can be found in your phone's settings, under notifications. There, you will be able switch off both features.

According to CTIA, the trade association representing the wireless communication industry, directions for opting out of Imminent Threat and Amber Alerts vary by device and provider. Contact your wireless carrier for instructions.

For more information on Wireless Emergency Alerts, visit CTIA's FAQ page.

Sources: CTIA, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, FEMA.gov, emergencymgmt.com, Verizon, MSN News research

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