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Amber alerts to reach out to mobile devices

Twelve states are significantly extending Amber alerts to cell phones, e-mail and handheld computers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A new technology debuting in 12 states will significantly extend Amber alerts, reaching cellular telephones, 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 state, 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 photographs 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 [that] no one will be stupid enough to take a child,” Warner said.

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 transportation department, for example, 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 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. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

The system also represents a next generation of public warning.

Many state emergency managers have clamored for a system that would instantaneously dispatch disaster information, including evacuation maps, on cell phones, the Internet and handheld devices.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry has said he hopes the technology could eventually be used to warn residents about severe weather, said Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for the state.

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 that it was providing the external security monitoring of the host site and backup locations. The companies donated $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.

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.