Amber Alert text from Philly leads to confusion in W.Pa.

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 12:06 a.m.

A 2-week-old Amber Alert program that sent a vague message about a missing 5-year-old to thousands of cell phones statewide on Monday night left local residents puzzled and uncertain about what they should do next.

The message, which popped up on phone screens about 9 p.m., simply stated: “An AMBER Alert has been issued in your area, please check local media.”

As it turns out, the cell phone bulletin — the first sent in Pennsylvania under the new national program — was requested by Philadelphia police because Nailla Robinson was taken from her school Monday morning.

The child was found unharmed early Tuesday hiding under a jungle gym not far from the school.

But the nebulous phone message prompted wireless users in this area to call media outlets for information about whether the missing child was from this region.

Newsroom employees at WPXI-TV fielded as many as two dozen phone calls after the alert went out, said Shareef Abul-Ela, the station's director of content and coverage.

When Rostraver Police Lt. John Christner received the message, his phone buzzed and flashed a red light, “all kinds of crazy things,” leaving him wondering what was happening.

He knew the child couldn't be from this area because if the incident had happened in this region, police would have received a be-on-the-lookout (BOLO) advisory.

“Why not just put all the information out (to the public) in the very beginning?” Christner said. “Everybody knows that time is of the essence.”

But officials from the organization responsible for sending the cell phone alerts to wireless towers within a specific area — the Center for Missing and Exploited Children — said they're hamstrung by limits set on the length of the message.

It's a limit even shorter than a standard 140-character tweet on Twitter.

“The problem that we have is that we're confined by FEMA and by the wireless industry to 90 characters,” said Bob Hoever, the center's director of special programs for missing children.

Residents in Citrus County, Fla., reported the same confusion when they were awakened about 1:40 a.m. Monday when an Amber Alert was broadcast to their phones, according to published reports.

The alert was for a 2-year-old reported missing 200 miles away. She was later found unharmed.

The cell phone alert program started at the beginning of the month.

It's part of an overall wireless program that also alerts users to natural disasters, said Laura Merritt, public relations manager for Verizon Wireless.

Customers can change settings on their phones to opt out of the alerts, she said.

On Monday night, some area residents learned details about the missing child when state police requested an emergency message be broadcast statewide on television and radio, state police spokeswoman Maria Finn said.

Since 1996, Amber Alerts have been issued any time a child is abducted and there's enough descriptive information that the alert could help save the child. They are named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas.

Under the program, anyone in a designated area with capable phones will receive the alerts, Hoever said. There's no cost to cell phone users, he said.

Dan Stevens, public information office for Westmoreland County's emergency management system said, “I'm sure there are people upset that they got (the alert) because it was ... alarming. But if it was their child, they would want the same thing to happen. We're just trying to do the right thing to save someone's life.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or

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