California Gets First Test of Cellphone Alert System

The first statewide Amber Alert was sent via cellphone in California this week, but was the system used properly?

by / August 8, 2013

In the late evening on Monday, Aug. 5, Californians got their first ever statewide Amber Alert via a cellphone alert -- a shrill, some say startling, notification from the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, providing vehicle details for a San Diego-area murder suspect that officials believe may have also kidnapped two of the victim's children. The California Highway Patrol believed the suspect could be en route to Canada or Texas.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the alert was sent out on an exclusive frequency used to reach large amounts of people simultaneously. Alerts, previously distributed via an opt-in program that reached fewer than 800,000 people, can now reach 97 percent of the country's active cellphones, even if they're in silent mode.

The new system, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been used in 14 states a total of 20 times, according to the Times. And while it is credited with the successful recovery of a missing 8-year-old boy last month in Cleveland, its use has prompted many questions from confused and annoyed recipients who question its efficacy.

"This is among the most unintelligent, histrionic, intrusive programs ever," Sacramento resident Joe Curren told the Times. "I felt like the San Diego police reached into my pocket."

Local police departments can only issue alerts in the case of kidnapped children. Working in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, authorities decide when an alert is warranted, and how large a geographic area should be covered. 

Cellphone alerts are now in broad use to help government agencies quickly reach large numbers of constituents. New Yorkers were notified of Hurricane Sandy's approach in this manner, while Oklahoma residents were warned as a deadly tornado approached last May.

 Despite successful uses of cellphone alerts, the California example may demonstrate a need for some fine-tuning of the program. Some residents reported receiving multiple alerts, while others questioned their contents.

 Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped from her Northern California home in 1993 and later found dead, received the alert twice.

"It's an incredibly harsh sound, and it provides you with almost no information," Klaas said. "That's not going to help anybody. I think the intention is good, but the application itself is pretty awful.

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