Amber Alert Program Technology
Amber Alert Program Technology
Linda K. Moore
Analyst in Telecommunications Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Amber Alerts (also referred to as AMBER plans) use technology to disseminate
information about child abductions in a timely manner. Research has found that most
abducted children murdered by their kidnappers are killed within three hours of the
abduction. Prompt response to child abductions is therefore deemed critical by many.
Amber Alert plans are voluntary partnerships including law enforcement agencies,
highway departments, and communications companies that provide emergency alerts.
Technologies used for alerts include the Emergency Alert System (EAS), highway
messages boards, telephone alert systems, the Internet, text messaging, and e-mail. Over
100 communities have Amber Alert programs, and all 50 states have statewide alert
plans. Because kidnappers can cross state lines with their victims, the Department of
Justice will often be involved in responding to an abduction. For this and other reasons,
there is increased federal involvement in and support of Amber Alert plans.
This report deals with technology and related policy issues. Other CRS reports
discuss protective programs for minors and current legislation.
How Amber Alerts Work
Amber Alerts1 (also referred to as AMBER2) use technology to disseminate
information about child abductions in a timely manner. Typically an Amber Alert is
triggered for children under 18 who are believed by law enforcement officers to have been
abducted (except in cases of parental abduction). Research has found that most abducted
children murdered by their kidnappers are killed within three hours of the abduction.
Prompt response to child abductions is therefore deemed critical by many. Law
enforcement officers are encouraged to send out an alert if circumstances indicate that the
child is in harm’s way, if they have sufficient descriptive information about the child
1 Named after Amber Hagerman, kidnaped and murdered in 1996. Websites with additional
information include [http://codeamber.org/] and the site of the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children, [http://www.ncmec.org].
2 For “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.”
and/or the abductor for an alert, and if they believe that the immediate broadcast of an
alert will help. When there is information about a vehicle used in an abduction, this
information will usually be transmitted to highway messages boards, if that technology
is in place. While each plan sets its own parameters, most follow guidelines set by the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
A typical Amber Alert, would include an Emergency Alert System (EAS) broadcast,
alerts on highway message boards, and notifications to public service partners such as
police, highway patrols and the field crews of public utilities. A number of counties and
cities have Amber Alert programs that notify local residents using e-mail or telephone
alert systems to aid in the recovery of abducted children. Alerts can also be sent by text
messages to cell phones and other wireless devices. Cingular, Sprint Nextel, Verizon
Wireless and T-Mobile are among the wireless service providers that participate in the
Amber Alert network; subscribers can sign up for free text messages.3 These systems have
the advantage of targeting selected audiences by function or geographical location but
may not be received in a timely manner; telephone alert systems, for example, can be
blocked by call-screening technologies.
Amber Alerts and All-Hazards Warnings
Some states participate in a consortium that uses Internet technology customized for
Amber Alerts.4 Information about an Amber Alert is sent to a web portal and
reconfigured for different types of broadcasting, including cell phones, pagers, e-mail,
highway signs, TV news websites, and emergency communications center. The
technology allows police officers to transmit details and photos through encrypted
computer systems in patrol cars. Information, therefore, is disseminated both more
quickly and more widely, maximizing the opportunity to find a missing child in the
critical first three hours. The alert system is managed from a dedicated web portal that
can be accessed by statewide or local systems. The software recognizes the reported
locations of abductions and sends emergency messages to targeted areas.
Emergency Alert System (EAS)5
EAS sends emergency messages with the cooperation of broadcast radio and
television and most cable television stations. Its most common use is for weather alerts.
EAS technology is also used in the Amber Alert programs administered in some states
and communities. To facilitate transmittal, EAS messages are classified by types of
events, which are coded. These event codes speed the recognition and retransmittal
process at broadcast stations. For example, a tornado warning is TOR, evacuation
immediate is EVI, a civil emergency message is CEM. When a message is received at the
broadcast station, it can be relayed to the public either as a program interruption or, for
television, a “crawl” at the bottom of the TV screen. In the early stages of Amber Alert
3 For more information, see [http://www.wirelessfoundation.org] and [https://www.
4 For more information, see [http://www.amberalert911.com/].
5 See CRS Report RL32527, Emergency Communications: The Emergency Alert System (EAS)
and All-Hazard Warnings, by Linda K. Moore.
program development the CEM (civil emergency) event code was used for EAS
messages. In February 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) added
several new event and location codes for broadcast and cable stations to use; included was
a Child Abduction Emergency (CAE) event code. Stations are not required to modify
their equipment to recognize the new codes and many Amber Alerts are still coded as civil
emergencies for transmission. New equipment installed by broadcast and cable stations
after February 2004, however, must be able to receive and transmit the new codes.6
Although broadcaster participation is mandatory for national alerts, the participation of
broadcast and cable stations in state and local emergency announcements is voluntary.
Presidential Initiatives and The Department of Justice7
Because kidnappers can cross state lines with their victims, the Department of Justice
will often be involved in responding to an abduction. For this and other reasons there is
increased federal involvement in and support of Amber Alert plans. However, critics are
concerned about the possibility of false arrests, overzealous vigilantism, the release of
sensitive information about minors, and confusion with homeland security alerts.
President George W. Bush and Congress have encouraged federal support for Amber
Alerts. In October 2002, the President requested that the Department of Justice establish
standards for the issuing and dissemination of Amber Alerts. On April 30, 2003, the
president signed into law the PROTECT Act (P.L. 108-21), formally establishing the
federal government’s role in the Amber Alert system. The Office of Justice Programs,
at the Department of Justice, now includes an Amber Alert division., the National
AMBER Alert Initiative.8 The Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation,
NCMEC, broadcasters, and law enforcement officers collaborate on national strategies
for the Amber Alert program. One collaborative initiative was to develop standard
procedures for emergency call takers responding to a report of a missing or abused child.
Members of the joint committee that developed the standard included the Association of
Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Academies of Emergency
Dispatch (NAED), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), NCMEC, and
the Department of Justice. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Board of
Standards Review approved the standard in December 2007 [APCO American National
National Emergency Child Locator Center
The National Emergency Child Locator Center has been established within NCMEC,
as required by the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007 (P.L. 109-295, Title VI,
6 FCC, Report and Order, Docket No. 01-66, released February 22, 2002.
7 Broader policy issues are discussed in CRS Report RL34050, Missing and Exploited Children:
Background, Policies, and Issues, by Adrienne L Fernandes.
8 See [http://www.amberalert.gov/].
9 APCO News, “New Standard Addresses Handling Reports of Missing Children,” January 22,
Subtitle E).10 The purpose of the center is to identify children separated from their
families as the consequence of a disaster and reunite them expeditiously. NCMEC is to
operate a toll-free call center, set up a website with information about displaced children,
and take other steps to collect and disseminate information about the children and their
families. NCMEC maintains both missing children and missing adults links on its
website for people missing in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.11
National Center for Missing Adults
Amber Alert technology and alerting techniques are also used for other missing
person notifications. A number of local or faith-based organizations maintain services to
assist in locating missing adults. The National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA)12
operates as the national clearinghouse for missing adults. NCMA also maintains a
national database of missing adults determined to be “endangered” or otherwise at-risk.
NCMA was formally established after the passage of Kristen’s Act (P.L. 106-468).13
NCMA is a division of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization, Inc. (NMCO) — a
501c (3) non-profit organization working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of
Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs.14
Kristen’s Act authorized the Attorney General to make grants to public agencies or
not-for-profit organizations to perform these functions:
!to assist law enforcement and families in locating missing adults;
!to maintain a national, interconnected database for the purpose of
tracking missing adults who are determined by law enforcement to be
endangered due to age, diminished mental capacity, or the circumstances
of disappearance, when foul play is suspected or circumstances are
!to maintain statistical information of adults reported as missing;
!to provide informational resources and referrals to families of missing
!to assist in public notification and victim advocacy related to missing
!to establish and maintain a national clearinghouse for missing adults.15
10 Sec. 689b, 120 STAT1449-1450.
11 See [http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_
12 See [http://www.theyaremissed.org/ncma/content.php?webid=about_ncma].
13 See [http://www.theyaremissed.org/ncma/content.php?webid=kristens_law].
14 See [http://www.theyaremissed.org/ncma/content.php?webid=about_nmco].
15 P.L. 106-268, Sec. 2.