BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - If a child goes missing and an AMBER Alert is issued, you'll likely receive an alert on your cell phone. The alert is free, and the software is already there - no update needed.
State Police Senior Investigator Gary Kelly said, "People don't even know they have it in their phones, in many cases."
The AMBER Alerts sent free to your cell phone are made possible through the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. New York joined WEA on December 31, 2012.
"Their phone now rings an audible tone, and there appears to be a text-like message about an AMBER Alert," Sr. Inv. Kelly explained.
The tone is unmistakable - it sounds similar to the tone that sounds when as "EAS" message scrolls across your television set.
"It's going to have limited information," Inv. Kelly said. "If there's a vehicle involved, it will have the vehicle information and the fact that there's an AMBER Alert in the area. You'll have to go to other sources - TV, radio, the AMBER Alert website - to obtain the details. The suspect's name, if known; child's description; clothing description; further vehicle information."
Police have traditionally relied on electronic highway billboards, radio and TV broadcasts to get AMBER Alerts out to the public. They hope the instant cell phone notifications will result in greater exposure.
Colonie Police Chief Steve Heider, who represents the NYS Association of Chiefs of Police on this state's AMBER Alert Committee, explained, "With everybody, almost, on the planet now having a cell phone, you're just looking at that many more eyes and ears out there in the public that are going to be made aware, on an instant basis, of a missing child, an abducted child."
Almost every new phone will be WEA-capable by the end of 2013. It's easy to tell if you already have the feature. Depending on your carrier, and phone model, the feature will appear differently. You may find it listed among your apps, under "Emergency Alerts" or a similar title.
"It's a default setting; there's an AMBER Alert setting that's already in your phone. People would have to opt out if they don't want the receive the AMBER Alert messages through this program," Inv. Kelly explained.
Fifty-two children have been the subjects of AMBER Alerts since New York began using the notifications in 2002. Every single one was brought home safe. Often, the public plays a direct role.
Investigator Kelly cited one such case from Elmira in January 2011, in which a 3-year-old boy was abducted and found hundreds of miles away in Rochester hours later, thanks to an AMBER Alert.
Chief Heider says it's important for parents to teach their kids about AMBER Alerts, and that they, too, can play a part.
"An awful lot of cell phones today are in the hands of people, even under the age of 16," he noted." Sometimes, our crimes are solved by 13-year-olds, 12-year-olds. People that just happened to be on the street, at the right place and the right time."
"You're just looking at a multitude of population, that is now forever expanded, that's going to be given quick, instant information that's going to hopefully lead to the recovery of a child," Heider said.
WEA is based on the cell towers your phone is pinging off of at any given moment.
So, for example, if someone from another state is driving through Buffalo and we have an AMBER Alert, that person will still receive it on his or her phone. If you go on vacation in California, you'll receive local AMBER Alerts.
WEA is different from NY-ALERT, which is an emergency notification system unique to New York State.
On NY-ALERT's website , you can sign up to receive public safety announcements and information about all types of emergencies - AMBER Alerts, missing vulnerable adult alerts, severe weather - free of charge and automatically via cell phone, fax, or email. You can also customize this system to receive alerts for a specific county, or the entire state.
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