July 20, 2004
NEW YORK - A new technology debuting in 12 states will significantly extend Amber alerts, reaching cell phones, e-mail and handheld computers, and could also be used to transmit weather and terrorism alerts.
"It might not be the all-alert system, but the backbone is going to be there," said Chris Warner, president of E2C in Scottsdale, Ariz., which led the system's development. "Homeland Security could take it right over."
Police officers in Arizona and Washington, starting Monday, were able to send Amber alerts - notifications of a child abduction - from a highly encrypted system in their cars then update them with photos and more detailed descriptions, Warner said. Ten other states are expected to launch the expanded alerts this summer.
"The goal of this is to make it so pervasive, no one will be stupid enough to take a child," said Warner.
The system will use a simple broadcast technology that takes the information into a Web portal and reconfigures it for different types of broadcast. A state department of transportation, for instance, might receive one format for its road signs and another for its information number.
Using the new system, people with cell phones can sign up for Amber alerts in with county or state authorities. The text of an alert can be shot immediately to local TV news programs' Web sites, with automatic updates.
"What we've done is create a fairly simple publishing and broadcasting tool," said Stuart McKee, who worked on the system when he was chief information officer for Washington state and is now the U.S. national technology officer for Microsoft Corp.
The system also represents a next generation of public warning.
Many state emergency managers have clamored for a system that would instantly dispatch disaster information, including evacuation maps, on cell phones, the Internet and hand-held devices.
Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma has said he hopes the technology could eventually be used to warn residents about severe weather, said Phil Bacharach, a state spokesman.
The idea came about after McKee saw Warner give a presentation on another information-sharing network he had developed, Earth911, an Internet clearinghouse with local information about recycling different types of trash.
State agencies and companies including Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Symantec Corp. worked together for 18 months to develop the system. Symantec said in May it is providing the external security monitoring of the host site and backup locations. The companies donated a total of $4 million in development time, Warner said.
The system will help police in part because they can spend much of the 24 hours after an Amber alert is issued answering phone calls from people looking for more information, McKee said.
The 10 other states set to join the initiative: Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Oregon. Also Monday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said his state also would soon join the mobile alert program.
Amber alerts were created after the 1997 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas.