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6-month-old AMBER cellphone system already saving lives, director reports

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

An executive with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that a 6-month old emergency warning program to instantly connect smartphone users to AMBER alerts is already saving lives.

Robert Hoover, director of special programs for the missing children division of the Washington-based center, said the program alerts cellphone users across the country with free, automatic notifications about abducted children in their specific areas.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts, known as WEA, suffered a few glitches after they went into effect on Dec. 31.

In mid-January, cellphone users in Pennsylvania and Florida received messages about abductions of children that had occurred several hundred miles away.

That, however, does not diminish the value of the alert program, Hoover said.

“Any time there is an AMBER alert, it's a tool that law enforcement can use to quickly and safely rescue a child,” Hoover said.

“The more eyes and ears out there in a specific area, once authorities receive information that a child has been abducted, the smaller the haystack they are looking at becomes,” he said.

CTIA, The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit trade association, developed the system to distribute alerts — originated by police departments and other agencies — to cellphones through service carriers.

It met with success on Feb. 20, when Minneapolis police activated a wireless alert about an 8-month-old girl abducted from her home. A woman saw the alert and discussed it with her father during a telephone call.

“When she was speaking to her father describing the alert, her father told her that a similar vehicle was parked right across the street,” Hoover said.

The woman called 911 and reported the car's location. The baby, Isabell Diaz Castillo, was reunited with her panicked mother about four hours after she was taken by a family acquaintance, who was arrested.

In January, cellphone users in the Pittsburgh region were startled and confused when they received a wireless alert issued by Philadelphia Police after a 5-year-old child went missing. A similar scenario played out in Florida about the disappearance of a 2-year-old. Both children were found safe.

Despite the initial confusion, Hoover said, the wireless alerts will engage citizens in the search for missing children in the critical three hours after an abduction. “It's truly a partnership with the media, technology and the public and harnessing all these abilities to find children as quickly as possible,” he said.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Steve Limani, spokesman for Troop A in Greensburg, said the system could be invaluable.

“Any time when you give us another investigative tool — especially in cases as important as locating an abducted child — it is a very good thing,” Limani said.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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