The Internet's ability to transmit information to millions of users with a few mouse clicks has always offered promise as a tool for law enforcement agencies in the search for missing children. Today, a first-of-its-kind, privately developed, Web-based alert system is helping those agencies deal with perhaps one of the most frustrating jobs of law enforcement, where clues are few and time is of the essence.

The Emergency Internet Alert System (EIAS), developed and operated by Spring Lake, N.J.-based Safe Kids International, is making the job a little easier. When a child is reported missing to local authorities, the EIAS is activated. After a police report has been filed, the missing child's photo and other pertinent information are sent to Safe Kids by either the law enforcement agency overseeing the case or the child's parents. The company uses the data to prepare and send e-mail alerts, which include a photo and biographical data, to thousands of online law enforcement agencies, schools, hospitals, transportation terminals and a growing base of private citizens within the geographic region from which the child disappeared. The alert messages include a link to the Safe Kids International Web page, where users can print copies of preformatted flyer notices containing the photo and descriptive data for posting in neighborhoods.

The system is the brainchild of Joe Florentine, a former real estate agent and entrepreneur who grew tired of reading about the rising number of juvenile abductions as cash-strapped law enforcement agencies struggled to keep up.

"Realistically, the Internet has provided us with the ability to track missing children anywhere in the world," Florentine said. "The ultimate goal is to see this system fully implemented for law enforcement."

Needle in the Haystack

Two years in development, the Safe Kids EIAS went into operation in January, when it issued its first alert for a 17-year-old reported missing from Sayreville, N.J. The system successfully transmitted over 10,000 messages in the first days of the case. Sadly, the missing girl's body was found a few days later, but Florentine was encouraged by the overwhelming response to the system by the public and private sectors that he pressed on, mortgaging his home to finance the operation.

In May, Safe Kids International celebrated its first victory in its war on juvenile abductions when it helped recover 16-year-old Candice Sharp. Reported missing in Alabama in March, she was found in Arkansas nearly two months later after a Safe Kids International volunteer recipient recognized her face from one of the thousands EIAS alerts sent during a 30-day period.

Once a missing-person report is filed, law enforcement officials say, the chances of locating the child depend on the ability to create immediate awareness within the geographical region involved. The faster a child's photo, description and other pertinent data can be distributed, the better the chances of recovery. The ability of EIAS to blanket specific geographic areas with alerts means the eyes and ears of the public can be put on the case before the trail grows cold.

"The most important part of a missing-person case is the first few hours, when we really need to get the word out to as many people as possible," said Sgt. Joe Mantegna of the Manchester, N.J., Police Department, who provided guidance to Safe Kids during early development of the system. "As soon as a child is missing, this system allows information and pictures to be passed through neighborhoods very quickly. It's fantastic."

Partners Against Crime

The success of the system, Florentine said, is attributed to the enthusiastic response it's received from overburdened law enforcement agencies, which handle more than 30,000 missing children cases each year, according to FBI statistics. Many law enforcement agencies, particularly those with fewer personnel, have linked their own Web sites to