Amber alert wake-up calls put program's effectiveness at risk, local emergency officials say

Every second counts for law enforcement searching for an abducted child – even when, some authorities say, it means waking many Georgia residents from their slumber.


A recent Levi’s Call – Georgia’s version of the Amber alert – sent to people’s cell phones about 5:40 a.m. started a Twitter backlash, with some people saying they were changing settings to turn off the notifications after they were jolted awake.

Some emergency management officials say Amber alerts should be sent any time – day or night – to protect children, while others argue that policy upsets the public and puts the program’s effectiveness at risk.

Pam Tucker, Columbia County Director of Emergency Management, had just fallen asleep after handling several other emergency calls when the early morning Levi’s Call sounded on her phone Nov. 15. It’s her job to pay attention to emergency notifications, but she worries the public might lose sight of their importance if they receive too many unwanted alerts.

“There’s nothing anybody can do about a missing child if they’re in bed asleep,” Tucker said. “We want to keep it but we don’t want it to irritate people.”

After the Nov. 15 Levi’s Call, an 18-month-old girl allegedly abducted by a baby sitter was found safe in downtown Atlanta. The alert provided information for a 1996 Ford Ranger that was missing from the child’s residence.

Police spotted the truck at a gas station and initiated a traffic stop on Atlanta’s Downtown Connector near Interstate 20. The toddler was inside the truck.

Before December 2012, the public could sign up online to receive Amber alerts on cell phones. The system was retired in favor of the Wireless Emergency Alert where cell phone owners must opt out of alerts for extreme weather, a national emergency and Amber alerts.

The messages look like text messages and include no more than 90 characters. Many times, Amber alerts include a license plate number and car description.

The minor inconvenience of an alert has potential to save a child’s life, said Bob Hoever, director of special programs in the missing children division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“At 5:40 a.m. in the morning, there’s a lot of commuters, a lot of people on the road,” Hoever said. “We don’t know who’s sleeping and who’s not sleeping.”

Safe rescues of six children have been tied to wireless Amber alerts, Hoever said. There could be more than six successes, but the program can specifically connect only those cases to the alerts, he said.

In Georgia, local law enforcement agencies contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which analyzes cases to determine if they meet criteria for a Levi’s Call. If they do, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency activates alerts on television, radio and electronic road signs. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children administers the wireless alerts.

“As soon as we determine it meets the criteria, it sends,” said GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang.

In response to complaints about alerts waking people, Lang said: “If it’s their child, they are going to want it sent out.”

Because of concerns about people opting out, Hoever said the program only sends alerts when they meet special criteria and a child is at serious risk of injury or death. Special efforts are made to ensure the alert information is accurate and to protect the integrity of the program, he said.

“We don’t want to oversaturate or desensitize the public,” Hoever said. “We critically rely on (the public’s) participation for this program to work.”

On Nov. 15, the notification system malfunctioned and some cell phone owners in Georgia received the alert multiple times.

Hoever said the multiple alerts were result of a “technology glitch” by some wireless carriers. The carriers were contacted to correct the problem, he said.

Mie Lucas, Augusta’s director of disaster preparedness, has received an Amber alert while driving and the sudden sound surprised her, which she said could have been dangerous on the road.

Still, the public needs to remain aware of emergency situations, Lucas said.

“While it may be irritating, it’s informing the public at the same time,” she said. “The government wants to put that information out as soon as possible. If you don’t want that, you can turn them off.”

Tucker recommends turning off the alerts while sleeping, in church or another setting where someone can be disturbed, but to keep it on during the day.

Tucker said the entire state must receive emergency notifications because child abductors almost always travel from the incident location. Augusta’s spot on I-20 puts it in an important place for Amber alerts, she said.