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Messages From New Amber Alert Program Startle Sleeping Californians

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An Amber Alert message sent out to many Californians Tuesday (CBS)

An Amber Alert message sent out to many Californians Tuesday (CBS)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – The notifications that woke many Californians overnight due to a statewide abduction search were part of a new national Amber Alert system officially rolled out earlier this year to millions of cellphones.

The alerts are automatically active on most newer phones, which means that you and many of your friends may have been caught completely by surprise.

Tuesday’s message – the first statewide notification since the program launched – was triggered when a statewide Amber Alert was issued for a pair of siblings who law enforcement officials believed were kidnapped by a man who allegedly killed their mother and burned down his San Diego County home on Sunday night.

The newly-expanded emergency alert system is an effort by FEMA 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 program’s purpose, especially when people are startled and annoyed and choose to opt out.

Since the program launched, people have taken to Facebook and Twitter to comment on being startled awake, scared by their phone’s activity, and frustrated by the lack of information.

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

“There’s a very delicate balance between how much is enough and how much (alerting) is too much,” said Damon Penn, who oversees the FEMA emergency alerts system. “The big concern is over-alerting, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

The federal agency requires people sending 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, Penn said. 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. “And it’s critical that we continue to have their participation.”

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

Los Angeles Police Department Det. Kevin Coffey trained local law enforcement officers on the alerts in February and found most were surprised by the new reach they already have.

“We’ve never had this ability,” Coffey said. “We’re going to have instantaneous connectivity with every person with a cellphone within our county and potentially multiple counties in the state.”

On an iPhone the notifications can be turned off by going to settings – selecting notifications – scrolling to the bottom of the screen and flipping the Amber Alert button to the off position. On an Android device, enter the text message settings where the opt out can be found under emergency alerts.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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