ANSI - American National Standards Institute
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Standardization is Next Step in National AMBER Alert System

New York, Jun 16, 2003

For more than a year, government agencies and law enforcement officials, public interest organizations, the news media and others have been arming the nation with information about an increase in child abduction cases. Following last Sunday’s safe return home of Jennette Tamayo, a 9-year-old who was kidnapped on June 6, there was a happy ending for one California family.

The number of kidnappings that has plagued the U.S. in recent months prompted President Bush to sign in April 2003 the PROTECT Act that turns local and statewide AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert systems into a national network.

Previously a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies and broadcasters, the AMBER Alert system is used to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases. With the new bill in effect, the appointed AMBER Alert coordinator, Assistant Attorney General Deborah J. Daniels, is responsible for ensuring that the nearly 100 local, regional and statewide AMBER programs are consistent and activated in a meaningful way. However, experts close to the system report, there are no standards in place to develop a ubiquitous and uniform warning system.

Several ANSI members and accredited standards developers in the telecommunications sector, including the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), are already involved in emergency broadcast standardization efforts for first responders using land-line and wireless communications systems.

The technology used to activate AMBER Alerts, however, is the Emergency Alert System (EAS) – formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System. Once activated, descriptions of the child, the alleged abductor, and other related information is sent by law enforcement officials to radio and television broadcasters as well as to state or local transportation department officials who are responsible for the content appearing on Changeable Message Signs (CMS). The signs, which normally give up-to-date traffic information, are also used to broadcast Amber Alert information to motorists.

Without standards, however, little can be done to conform the information concerning the abduction into meaningful messages the public can use to help.

New technologies are being investigated and developed that can link emergency messages to cell phones, pagers, personal digital assistants and other communications devices. In a March article in ComputerWorld, Peter Ward, chairman of the Partnership for Public Warning, suggested the standards for these new systems of reaching the public could be based on XML, a markup language for documents containing structured information.

Pre-recorded messages, known as “Abducted Child Statement” – event codes used within the EAS – are already under development. These codes will help to ensure that correct and concise information is sent out to the public.

“We recognize the need for the standardization of message content,” said Robert Rupert, traveler information program manager with the Federal Highway Administration. “Some jurisdictions are just ‘cutting-and-pasting’ information from the [Amber Alert] broadcast onto the CMS. This could result in as many as four panels of information. A motorist speeding along a highway at 60 miles per hour will not be able to view this much information.”

Mr. Rupert also indicated that the Federal Highway Administration will launch a research study next month that is intended to identify the best practices for implementing AMBER Alerts and sending out crucial information. “The nationwide AMBER system will draw from the existing ‘best practices’ of states such as California and Texas, where the current AMBER Alert systems are more advanced and consistent,” he said.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), there is also a need to establish a common set of criteria for the process of issuing an alert. The three criteria this group has recommended for determining when to activate AMBER include:

  • law enforcement must confirm the abduction
  • law enforcement believes the circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death, and
  • there is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, and/or vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help.

It is important that states use the same criteria to determine when to use an AMBER alert, explained officials close to the project. This not only facilitates the sharing of information across state lines, but also ensures that AMBER is not overused to the point that the public becomes desensitized to the alerts.

The AMBER Alert system has already proven to be an important and successful tool in the safe return of abducted children. Since the NCMEC began its campaign to expand and enhance the programs across the country in 2001, 64 children have been recovered. Joanne Donnellan is the NCMEC Amber Alert coordinator.

The AMBER Alert program originated in Texas in 1996, after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered.