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    Where the Emergency Alerts on Your Phone Come From

    Written by

    Fruzsina Eördögh


    Screenshots courtesy Lex Berko

    Around 10 PM last night, California residents were scared shitless by a never before heard screech that emanated from their cell phones. The culprit? An Amber Alert sent to their phone, notifying them of a kidnapped child in their area.  

    Much like the alert that freaked out New Yorkers in July, Californians took to Twitter to voice their bewilderment and even anger. Seriously, look at the chart of Amber Alert mentions over time below. But where did the messages come from?

    The Amber Alert was reportedly the first in California sent through the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, which has been around in one form or another since 2008, when it was known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System.  The WEA is a joint program by the FCC, FEMA and service providers (like AT&T and Verizon) that volunteer to participate in the program. In other words, they let the government use their cell towers to basically mass text users in a targeted region. 

    Until recently, the WEA system was primarily used to send out weather-related alerts like an approaching hurricane, tornado, or flash flood. But as the technology become more widely adopted, their use has become more common.

    In April 2012, the FCC mandated all phones be equipped with WEA capabilities, and in January of this year, Amber Alerts were added to this WEA system. Since its addition, about two dozen Amber Alerts have been sent out in in Texas, Ohio, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, with New York getting its first in July (though their program went live in March), and California just last night.

    Robert Hoever, the director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, explained in an email that the alerts are issued not just for where the child was abducted, but where the abductor is believed to be taking the child. This explains why when I was in Ohio in January, I received a message for a missing child in Texas—the abductor was believed to be driving through Ohio. I didn’t see the car in the description though.

    To date, there have been two confirmed success cases related to an Amber Alert phone message, wrote Hoever, with the first occurring on February 20 in Minneapolis, Minn.

    Following the kidnapping of an 8-month-old child that was abducted while his mom was in the shower, a teenager named Daisy Buenrostro received the WEA message on her phone, “and immediately noticed the vehicle parked outside of a home,” wrote Hoever. She told her father, who called the police, and the child was found in the basement of that home.

    The second confirmed success happened on July 1, 2013 in Cleveland, OH, when an 8-year-old boy was abducted. A group of people at a diner received the message and after noticing a car that matched the description, called 911 and followed the vehicle on a five mile chase.  

    So text message Amber Alerts actually work, but why does it have to sound so terribly terrifying? Well, it’s supposed to, so people realize the urgency of the matter. As for the loudness, that is for people with hearing and/or eyesight problems.

    Those not convinced of the usefulness of the WEA program and too annoyed or scared by the sound can opt out. But as someone that was kidnapped as a child and was found a day later at the Canadian border pre-WEA days, I'll say that if you do, you’re an asshole.