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Cold War technology helped save lives of abducted teens

By Steve Irsay
Court TV

(Court TV) -- An alert system dating back to the Cold War and since used to broadcast weather emergencies is being praised for helping to save the lives of two California teens abducted at gunpoint on Thursday.

The California Child Safety AMBER Network, a child abduction alert system, was unveiled statewide on July 24 in the wake of the Samantha Runnion kidnapping and murder and was put to a serious test just six days later by the shocking abduction of the two girls.

While attention is now focused on the California system, it is only the most recent of some 41 such AMBER alert systems that have sprouted up locally and statewide since it was launched in Texas in 1996. In the last two months alone at least seven similar systems have been planned or implemented and advocates for the alerts believe the California case will only help to speed that growth.

"We are talking with someone in almost every state across the country," said Joann Donnellan, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the organization that helped spearhead a campaign to take the system nationwide last October. "I guarantee you that by the end of next year the whole map will be covered."

Of the 41 plans, whose name stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, more than half are local while 12 are statewide. The first plan was put into effect in Dallas-Fort Worth through a joint effort of the Association of Radio Managers and local law enforcement agencies and was named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996.

The recent spate of high profile child abductions in the last few months has also raised awareness about the alert system. Salt Lake City used it version of the Amber alert following the abduction of Elizabeth Smart in June and Gov. Gray Davis was prompted to introduce the California plan in the wake of the July kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion. The system was introduced the day before what would have been her sixth birthday.

The goal of the plan is fairly simple: use basic broadcasting technology to beat the clock in abduction cases. Nearly three-quarters of children killed in cases of stranger abduction are murdered within the first three hours, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

It was hoped that getting facts out quickly would in effect make the public additional eyes and ears of law enforcement. That is apparently what happened in the dramatic rescue of the teens and shooting death of the suspect in California.

Deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrived on the kidnapping scene around 2 a.m. and about two hours later they issued the fist bulletin reporting the crime through a state Web site. The AMBER alert, however, was not issued until about 7 a.m.

Once the alert was sent out, public airwaves were blanketed with news of the crime, including photos of both girls and a description of the white Ford Bronco used by kidnapper Roy Dean Ratliff. Messages also went out over electronic freeway signs throughout the state, causing traffic delays but also leading to hundreds of calls. After stopping nearly 100 Ford Broncos statewide, police caught up with Ratliff on a dirt road a few hours after a highway worker heard a radio AMBER alert and called authorities.

"It's a victory for California and a victory for the plan," said Donnellan. "This was a perfect case where it worked because it mobilized the entire community quickly when time was the enemy."

Despite congratulations on the alert's success from parents and the media, California authorities are far from patting themselves on the back just yet.

"I think it worked pretty well," said Lt. Larry Schwartz of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Communications Center. "I was pleased with the progress although it identified areas we want to streamline. We're not happy with the rate" at which it was deployed.

There has been mounting criticism of the fact that it took authorities nearly 5 hours to activate the alert system. Schwartz said because of the newness of the system there were some routine technical glitches and personnel coordination issues.

Schwartz and others cite the training of law enforcement officers to use the system as critical as well. This is because it is up to officers arriving on the scene to initially determine whether or not a case meets the criteria for an Amber alert.

Currently there is no uniform protocol because the all of the nationwide alert systems are independent and voluntary. However, most subscribe to four basic guidelines: the abductor must be a stranger, the victim must be a minor, the chances of bodily harm or death must be great and there must be adequate descriptive information about the abduction.

"Training is critical because we might have programs that are very good but if people are not properly trained even a good program can fail," said Schwartz.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children the programs have had their share of successes, recovering at least 17 children since 1997, including one case in which an abductor reportedly released the child after hearing the alert himself.

The Amber alert system was officially endorsed by the FCC in February, a move that Donnellan claims helped calm the fears of some broadcasters that alerts would flood their airwaves.

While the programs are new, the technology is not. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) used to broadcast the messages, is based on technology developed in 1963 during the Cold War to relay messages from the President.

Since then the system has been used largely to broadcast weather bulletins. The widespread existence of the technology needed for the alerts has led some to question why there are not more Amber alerts.

"I think maybe the reason is a lot of people don't know about it yet," said Bryan Erickson, news director at KTRH-AM in Houston and chairman of that city's AMBER alert board. "I think this case will be a catalyst to get communities not using it to use it."

During the last six months the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports being flooded with calls people who want the alerts in their community. The increased use of the program would be a victory for child safety advocates but a bittersweet one given the circumstances that prompt the alerts.

"I hope we don't have to use it again," said Lt. Schwartz. "But, I suspect we will."  




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