WASHINGTON – A favorite means of communication among teens may now help to save children's lives.
The National Center for Missing and Abused Children and the wireless industry announced Tuesday that most cellular phone subscribers can opt to receive AMBER alerts via text messaging whenever a local child is reported missing.
Alerts now are broadcast on television,radio and highway signs.
“The reason why we have our children recovered is radio,” said Wayne Sheppard,Pennsylvania's AMBER alerts coordinator. “But guess what? Those motorists call in on their cell phones.”
Sheppard,who also supervises the state's criminal investigation and missing persons unit,said,“A timely response is paramount if we are going to safely recover our children.”
Named after a Texas girl,Amber Hagerman,9,who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996,the program name also stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.
The new program will allow people to register their cellular phone numbers and up to five ZIP codes. The volunteers are then notified through text messages when law enforcement agencies in those areas issue AMBER alerts.
“What better could we do with a cell phone?” said John Walsh,host of TV's “American's Most Wanted.” “Cops can't do it alone. You are our partners now.”
The initiative will cost wireless companies millions of dollars because of equipment and time; however,registration is free to subscribers.
“Someone asked me,‘What is the cost?' Well,there is a cost,” said Terry Addington,chairman of CITA- The Wireless Association,which represents cellular companies. When the first child is recovered as a result,he said,the “bill is paid in full.”
Walsh said that if volunteers register correctly,they will not receive alerts from other parts of the country. “They won't be bombarded every time they pick up a cell phone,” he said.
Companies with 90 percent of U.S. mobile phone subscribers are taking part in the program,which Nextel tested in Pennsylvania in the fall.
Sheppard said police issued two alerts,and one person who got the text message made a call that led to the recovery of a kidnapped child.
“Americans want to help fight crimes against children,and now that power rests in the palm of their hands,” said Steve Largent,president of CTIA – The Wireless Association,in a press release. “With more than 60 percent of Americans owning wireless devices,and seldom going anywhere without them,this initiative will significantly increase the reach of the AMBER alert program by notifying people – wherever they are – of the emergency situation.”
Since 1997,when the program began,204 children have been recovered through the system,including three on Monday.
To learn more about the program,visit http://www.wirelessfoundation.org/AMBER and to register a cell phone for the program,visit http://www.wirelessamberalerts.org