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In our opinion: Those who manage Amber Alert need to proceed cautiously

Published: Monday, Aug. 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

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The Amber Alert system is important, successful and expanding into use of new technology. As it does, those who manage the system need to proceed cautiously to avoid a backlash that could render it less effective.

The use of a text message version of an Amber Alert in a high-profile abduction case in Southern California produced considerable negative feedback from citizens who were startled and confused by late-night beeping on their phones. The message was sent to tens of thousands of cell phones as part of a new "wireless emergency alert system," which is also in place but yet to be deployed in Utah.

The digital messages had to do with the abduction of two children from a home in the San Diego area. The text message gave some cursory details as to the make and model of the car the suspect was believed to be driving. A large number of recipients complained via social media and elsewhere that they were frustrated by the middle-of-the-night message because it gave little useful information.

The episode offers a valuable lesson for Amber Alert managers as how to best use this new form of mass notification going forward. There is a critical point of balance between summoning help from citizens and annoying them with information they aren't able to act on. In an area with a population in the tens of millions, asking people to look out for a blue Nissan sedan seems like nothing more than a call for a mass search for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

But on the other hand, it is just that kind of alert that has led to successful intervention by authorities in hundreds of abduction cases nationwide. In Utah, since the Amber Alert system was created in 2002, 34 alerts have been issued, and in 31 of those cases, children were returned safely. While thousands may be perplexed and perturbed, if only one person who happens to be in the right place and the right time is able to act on the alert, the greater good has been accomplished.

But there is also a point of diminishing returns. If alerts are perceived as too frequent and lacking in actionable information, they may very well come to be regarded like the car alarms we ignore in parking lots.

Advocates of the system appear keen to that risk. In the wake of the California incident, an official of the National Center for Exploited and Missing children is asking permission from regulatory authorities to allow Amber Alert senders to incorporate more detail in the texts they issue, including links to other sources of information.

More detail would only encourage more participation among people who are inherently disposed to help out in an emergency, which is most of us. But overuse of the system and a failure to incorporate meaningful detail may persuade otherwise vigilant citizens to disable the wireless alert notifications on their phones.

In Utah, Amber Alert authorities have a track record for deploying the system judiciously and with notable success. It's important they stay on that track, as they are now armed with the ability to trigger alarms in virtually every person's pocket or purse.

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