Jan. 12, 2011 at 4:55 PM ET
Six weeks ago, Col. W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police Superintendent, experienced firsthand how Facebook’s viral communication can help lead to the safe return home of an abducted child.
After police found Tina Smith murdered in her Roanoke, Va. Home, her daughter, Brittany Smith, 12, missing, along with Tina Smith's boyfriend Jeff Easley and Smith’s car, they issued an AMBER Alert for the area, and posted the alert on the Virginia State Police Facebook fan page.
"With a click of that button went images of Brittany Smith and Jeff Easley and a descriptor of that vehicle" to 24,000 Virginia State Police Facebook fans, Col. Flaherty said in a press conference Wednesday, announcing Facebook’s new AMBER Alert program. The page gained 200 more fans by the end of the day, "and they too were able to share the story with their friends and fans."
The link spread across the country on Facebook, and as often happens with links on the social network, the local story made national news. Five days later, on the other side of the country, a woman spotted the missing pair outside a store in San Francisco. Recognizing them from TV, she notified the authorities, which led to Easley’s arrest and Brittany’s safe return to her father in Virginia.
"I’m confident that Roanoke County wouldn't of had nearly as many leads to help them in this case had it not been for the sharing of this info among Facebook fans and the sharing of the AMBER alert," Col. Flaherty said. "Social media certainly enabled law enforcement to reach beyond our borders — to find the endangered child."
In an effort to aid more positive outcomes, Facebook and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), announced the AMBER Alert program’s expansion to the social network at the NCMEC headquarters in Alexandria, Va.
"Beginning today, Facebook users will be able to sign up to receive AMBER alert bulletins for their state," NCMEC president Ernie Allen said at the press conference, held in the in conjunction with the Department of Justice, and the Virginia State Police.
"A total of 53 new AMBER alert pages have been created, one for each state, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. Facebook users will also be able to share the AMBER Alerts with their friends. With more than a half-billion users on Facebook, these new pages represent an important expansion of the National AMBER Alert program."
The launch takes place on the 15th anniversary of the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, for whom the alert system was named. AMBER Alerts — known officially as "America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response" — utilizes the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to notify broadcasters and state transportation officials about a recently abducted child.
Law enforcement also contacts the NCMEC, which launches a secondary alert system to reach millions of Americans through partnerships with the trucking industry as well as Internet and wireless service providers. The AMBER Alert program is credited with the recovery of 525 children, and the help of everyday citizens has been instrumental.
"As we all know, social networking has few boundaries, and now AMBER alerts will benefit from that nearly limitless reach," Laurie O. Robinson, assistant attorney general, Office of Justice Programs, said during the press conference.
For that reason, the organizers have eschewed banner ads or site-wide alerts that could be perceived as spam in favor of a volunteer program with a viral element. "We get the best bang for our buck if we have people who are interested in getting this information,” Col. Flaherty said.