SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is now part of the new National Wireless Emergency Alerts System. The program sends out alerts to all cellphone users in the form of sounds and beeps when an Amber Alert is issued.
"It's a loud tone. It's meant to startle people so they know something big is going on, and so if you're not used to it, you need to be aware you may be getting an alert that really surprises you," said Paul Murphy, Utah's Amber Alert coordinator.
The first time the new alert was used in Minnesota, a woman decided to look out her window and spotted the car described in the alert. As a result, the kidnapped child was saved.
The new Amber Alert tones have suffered some criticism. The system left some in Florida frazzled after the loud sound woke a lot of people up in the middle of the night.
"At 2 in the morning when I am sleeping, I can't help them out anyhow," George Giles told WPTV. "I wouldn't have been able to see anyone at that time."
Indiana state troopers asked their state legislators not to allow the new alert sounds because they fear the loud, unexpected noises can startle drivers and possibly cause accidents.
Utah has decided not to use the loud sound for Amber Alerts between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., even if a child has been abducted.
The text-style messages will still go through.
"That has always been the frustrating thing about Amber Alerts," said Murphy. "People would complain, ‘You interrupted my TV programming.' Well, what if that was your kid who was missing? What if your child had been abducted? You would want everyone who possibly could to be able to help find your child."
The new alerts are also geographically targeted. If someone lives in Utah but visits another state, they will receive Amber Alerts from the state where they are physically present. They wouldn't receive those in Utah.
"The message comes to where you are," said Murphy. "The fact that anyone with a cellphone will receive an Amber Alert means you're going to have more eyes and ears looking for a child than ever before. I mean, it's a big deal. This is a game changer for the Amber Alert system."
Customers of participating carriers are automatically signed up. Users who don't want to receive them can contact their cellphone provider or shut off the alerts in the "alerts/notifications" section of their phone.
Also, if a phone is set to vibrate or silent, the audio messages will not come through.
Utah hasn't had an Amber Alert since the new system went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year.
Utah's Amber Alert system is setting a high standard for the rest of the nation when it comes to recovering missing children. Since first instituting the system in 2002, Utah has had 34 Amber Alerts for 39 children. Thirty-one of those children were returned safely.
"We see these examples all the time here in Utah," said Murphy. "Kids have been taken from the northern part of the state and found in the southern part of the state. In Utah, if an Amber Alert goes out, there's a chance you may be the person who can save that child."