The AMBER Alert was created in the United States in 1996 by the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Radio Managers, in association with local law enforcement agencies in Northern Texas. The AMBER alert system was in response to, and as a legacy to, nine year old Amber Hagerman who was abducted and brutally murdered in Arlington, Texas. Residents of the community were shocked and outraged by the murder. Citizens contacted local broadcasting stations, wondering if there was anything that could be done to prevent future incidents and suggesting an alert system similar to the one used to warn people of extreme weather conditions. The AMBER alert system, which stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, uses the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to air the description of the missing child and the suspected abductor, along with any other valuable information known about the abduction. The goal of the alert is to captivate the entire community and enlist their assistance in the search for and safe return of abducted children.
The AMBER Plan
The AMBER Plan is a voluntary, cooperative partnership between law enforcement agencies and broadcasting companies to notify the public of a child’s abduction. Together, they activate an emergency bulletin to be used in serious child-abduction cases. Broadcasters receive information from police and use an Emergency Alert System (EAS) to air a complete description of the child abducted as well as the suspect. This fast-acting system works in combination with the help of the public to assist in the safe return of an abducted child.
How It Works
- Law enforcement must have reasonable grounds to believe that an abduction has taken place prior to issuing the alert.
- The individual must be a child (in Canada this is defined as under 18 years of age) or have a proven mental or physical disability.
- The child is believed to be in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
- There is sufficient descriptive information that will help the public to identify the child or the suspected abductor.
When it is determined that the criteria for an AMBER Alert have been met, the information is assembled and released for public distribution. The information includes a description or a photo of the child, a description of the suspected abductor and the suspected vehicle, as well as any other valuable information that could be used to identify the child or the suspect. This information is then distributed to radio and television stations that have been designated the primary stations under the EAS. These then send out the same information to other radio and television stations through the EAS for immediate broadcasting. This allows a great number of people to see or hear the broadcast within a short period of time.
AMBER Alerts are not intended to cases involving ‘runaway’ children or parental abductions, except if it is believed the child is in a life-threatening situation. An AMBER Alert is only used for the most serious abduction cases, where the life of the victim is believed to be in grave danger, as not to overuse the system and minimize its effect on listeners.
AMBER Alert Implementation
- The alert is shown every 15 minutes for the first three hours;
- After the initial three hours, the alert is shown every 30 minutes for five hours;
- The alert is shown in newscasts every hour for 24 hours;
- The alert is cancelled after 24 hours, or when the police notify the broadcaster that the victim has been found.
When an AMBER Alert is broadcasted, the alert interrupts all participating TV and radio stations, appears on associated social media websites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) and RSS feeds, is sent to Wireless AMBER Alert subscribers, and notifies the Canada Border Services Agency to prevent the suspect and victim from leaving Canada. Some provinces and states also use electronic highway signs in the AMBER Alert. Highway signs in areas where the suspect may be show a description of the victim, the suspect, and the suspect’s vehicle.
Wireless AMBER Alert
In May 2010, AMBER Alert Canada created an initiative called Wireless AMBER Alerts, a program that distributes AMBER Alerts to wireless subscribers who opt in to receive such messages. Subscribers capable of receiving text messages, and whose wireless carrier participates in the Wireless AMBER Alerts Initiative, may opt in to receive alerts at www.wirelessamber.ca or directly through your wireless device by texting 26237 (AMBER). Some provinces offer an app that can be downloaded on your Smartphone to provide you with updates on AMBER in your province.
Participating carriers with the wireless AMBER Alert initiative include Bell, Fido, Koodo Mobile, Mobilicity, MTS, NorthernTel, Public Mobile, Solo Mobile, Télébec, TELUS, Vidéotron, Virgin Mobile, CWTA and WIND.
Access to the Wireless AMBER Alerts database is available to all provincial law enforcement agencies to add and dismiss an alert. The provincial agency where the abduction occurred has sole discretion on whether the Wireless AMBER Alert system is used.
AMBER Alert in Canada
Canada’s AMBER Alert systems were modeled after those in the United States and came into effect after much public interest from community organizations, including Victims of Violence and Canadian provincial governments. It was understood that in order to be successful, the system would need to be adopted in all provinces. Alberta was the first to implement the system in December 2002, followed by Ontario in early January 2003. All other Canadian provinces have since adopted AMBER Alert, the latest being British Columbia and Nova Scotia in May 2004.
In the summer of 2010, Canada became the first country to create a partnership with a social network, Facebook, to assist the police in alerting the public about AMBER alerts. New Brunswick was the first province to create an AMBER alert Facebook page and within 6 months was followed by Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, and Québec. These pages allow you to “Like” them and receive instant updates about alerts in the specific province.
In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, teamed up with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to send out AMBER Alerts to Canadian Facebook users in specific areas where police believe children have been abducted. As soon as an AMBER Alert is issued, the information is sent directly to Facebook and is then distributed to users within the search area. The police determine the range of the target area for each specific alert before allowing Facebook to share it to user timelines. These target areas can be either city wide or province wide. These geo-targeted Facebook alerts provide users with a picture of the child, an advantage over radio and highway alerts.
Since Facebook became a part of the AMBER Alert program it has proven to be successful in aiding cases of abducted children. For example, in May 2014, a newborn baby was abducted from a hospital in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. Four local teens saw the AMBER Alert issued on their Facebook feeds and recognized the suspect from their school. They were able to locate the suspect and contacted the police. The authorities were able to find the baby safe and sound just three hours after the AMBER Alert was issued.
Twitter, another social network, is also used for aiding the AMBER Alert program. Various news broadcasting agencies have their own Twitter account where they broadcast their local AMBER Alerts. In 2014, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) created their own AMBER Alert Twitter account in an effort to utilize the speed and power of social media to locate abducted children in Ontario.
This powerful social networking platform allows AMBER Alerts to mobilize the online community to help locate abducted Canadian children. Through the use of social media, information about the alert is spread quickly to the public which is a critical aspect of AMBER Alert activation.
AMBER Alert Success Stories
The AMBER plan has proved to be very successful where it is implemented. There are many examples of successful child recoveries:
December 2, 2016, Portage la Prairie, Manitoba: An 8-year-old girl was abducted at 11:00AM by her biological mother who was under an order not to have contact with the child. The public called in to report information on the whereabouts of the suspect and the victim. The RCMP found the girl safe and sound with her mother in a vehicle on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg just after 6:00PM on the same day.
November 24, 2016, Vancouver, British Columbia: A 4-year-old was abducted by her father. Her father does not have custody of the girl, has no fixed address and according to the police, is involved in a high-risk lifestyle. The AMBER Alert was cancelled the following afternoon when the child and the suspect were found safe and sound around noon in Surrey, BC. There is an ongoing investigation about the details of this case while the suspect remains in custody. This case was actually the 19th AMBER Alert to be issued since 2004 when the program was launched in British Columbia.
March 20, 2016, Toronto, Ontario: A three-month old baby was in the backseat of an idling car in a Toronto flea market and was abducted when the suspect stole the vehicle. A member of the public called 911 to report that they saw the missing vehicle. The child was found safe in the car four hours after the AMBER Alert was issued.
May 26, 2014, Trois-Rivieres, Quebec: A 1 day old baby was abducted from the Ville-Marie hospital in Quebec by a woman who was dressed as a nurse. The parents and hospital staff were quick to notice the absence of the baby. Quebec provincial police issued an AMBER alert containing a photo of the baby, the picture of the suspect-which was obtained from hospital security cameras, as well a description of the suspect’s car. After seeing the AMBER Alert on Facebook, four local teenagers recognized the suspect and immediately got in contact with the local police. Only 3 hours after the Amber alert was issued, the police arrived at the suspect’s apartment and located the baby safely.
August 1, 2013, Niagara Falls, Ontario: A 9-year old boy was abducted by his non-custodial mother and uncle during a family reunion at an amusement park. The boy was reported missing by his father when he could not be located upon the closing of the park. Niagara Police issued an AMBER Alert the following morning containing information about both the child and two abductors. Police were able to locate the uncle first when his car was pulled over as a result of matching the description given in the AMBER Alert. The uncle’s arrest led the police to a Toronto hotel where the child was safely located.
How You Can Help
The public plays a critical role in the success of the AMBER Alert Program.
- If you witness an abduction, contact your local law enforcement agency of call 911 immediately. Provide the authorities with any information on the location of the abduction and a description of the victim, suspect and/or vehicle involved in the abduction.
- If you hear an AMBER Alert, watch for the child, the suspect, the suspect’s vehicle, and any other information given in the alert. Immediately report any sightings by calling 911.
- Provide further information on the location of the abduction or description of the victim and suspect if possible.
- Immediately report any sightings or information by calling 911 or the phone number given in the AMBER Alert.
- Sign up for wireless AMBER Alerts through SMS text messages by visiting wirelessamber.ca or by texting 26237 (AMBER).
- Do not call emergency 911 for information regarding the abduction.
The Public can report information or sightings to the AMBER Alert Call Centre. There are operators available at the toll-free hotline 24 hours a day:
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Global News. “Baby taken from hospital found Safe.” http://globalnews.ca/news/1355790/amber-alert-issued-after-baby-taken-from-hospital-in-quebec/
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Pereira, J. (2015). How You Can Help Find a Missing Child on Facebook with New Amber Alert Feature. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/find-missing-child-facebook-amber-alert-feature/story?id=28173570
Wireless AMBER Alerts. (2008). http://www.wirelessamber.ca/home.jsp