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Amber Alert jolts cellphones across California

New Amber Alert system draws criticism as police seek a man suspected of killing a woman and kidnapping two of her children.

August 06, 2013|By Scott Gold, Joseph Serna and Emily Foxhall

On a narrow road etched through the chaparral east of San Diego, firefighters made a terrible discovery Sunday — a home was on fire and inside was the body of a 44-year-old woman. Missing were the woman's children and the owner of the home, who was believed to have abducted them.

Nearly 600 miles to the north, in Sacramento, Joe Curren and his girlfriend popped a disc of "Identity Thief" into the DVD player and prepared for a relaxing evening at home. At almost 11 p.m. Monday, his cellphone erupted with a squeal he had never heard before — "like a fire alarm," he said.

It was the sound of the future, and Curren didn't like it.

For the first time, California had notified the public of an Amber Alert — a suspected child abduction — through the state's cellphone network. Like many others throughout the state, Curren was left with two questions, summed up as Will the children be OK? and What am I supposed to do from my couch, near midnight, at the other end of the state?

"This is among the most unintelligent, histrionic, intrusive programs ever," Curren said. "I felt like the San Diego police reached into my pocket."

The Amber Alert was issued Monday after firefighters in the tiny community of Boulevard, Calif. — about 50 miles east of San Diego and five miles north of the Mexican border — found the body of Christina Anderson of Lakeside. A child's body was also found in the wreckage of the burning home.

Authorities allege that the owner of the home, James Lee DiMaggio, 40, killed Anderson and abducted her daughter Hannah Anderson, 16, and son Ethan, 8. The California Highway Patrol said DiMaggio could be headed to Texas or Canada in a blue Nissan Versa.

Seeking the public's help in locating DiMaggio and the children, officials issued a notification to the vast majority of cellphones in California — the first time the state has used a new, national Amber Alert system administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Amber Alert program was created in 1996 in memory of Amber Hagerman, 9, who was abducted and killed near her home in Texas. For years, the alerts went out through radio, television or on familiar roadside signs, 700 of which are positioned alongside highways and thoroughfares in California.

But the nation is an increasingly mobile place. More than 90% of adult Americans have a cellphone, and many of those devices are not just phones, but delivery systems for information. A wireless Amber Alert program was launched in 2005. Two critical changes came at the beginning of this year.

Rather than being sent as text messages, the alerts were transmitted on an exclusive frequency that can reach tens of thousands of people at the same time — even if those people are crowded into one place, such as a stadium, and even, as some users discovered this week, if a cellphone is set to silent.

And cellphone users were automatically signed up unless they decided to opt out of the program. Under the old opt-in system, the alerts reached fewer than 800,000 people, said Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for the Wireless Assn., a nonprofit trade organization. Now the alerts can reach 97% of the 300 million-plus active cellphones in the United States.

The new system has been used at least 20 times in 14 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio. And it has worked; last month, a missing 8-year-old boy in Cleveland was found after a man received an alert on his cellphone, saw the car described by authorities and followed it until police arrived.

Police are only authorized to send out alerts for kidnapped children. Local law enforcement agencies work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to determine whether an alert should be issued and what geographic area should be covered. Monday's alert was sent out by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

It's part of a cascade of programs in which government agencies are harnessing mobile technology to reach many people, urgently.

Last year, as Hurricane Sandy approached, New Yorkers received phone messages telling them to find shelter. This spring, alerts from the National Weather Service popped up on phones as a massive tornado approached Moore, Okla. In California, scientists are developing a system that would give as much as 50 seconds warning before the Big One reached downtown Los Angeles from the San Andreas fault.

The president also has the authority to send an alert in times of crisis.

"We're harnessing the power of mobile devices that are ubiquitous at this point," Josef said. "It enhances the chances of saving lives."

Some people who criticized Monday's Amber Alert said they understand the need during natural disasters and major events that effect large areas. But they didn't think it merited statewide distribution.

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