Monday, March 10, 2014

AMBER Alerts

I think most people are in agreement that AMBER Alerts are a good thing. When a child goes missing, we should find them. Even though it is a very remote possibility, the thought of my own child being abducted by a stranger is pretty frightening, so it seems like the kind of thing that's appropriate to display on highway message boards and whatnot.

The general thinking is that AMBER Alerts - and their neighbors Silver Alerts - are effective, because why else would we have them? But while there have been success stores, whether AMBER Alerts are actually effective, or just a form of "security theater", is open for debate. Another matter is whether AMBER Alerts are overused, such as in domestic child custody disputes.

So...Friday afternoon, my phone starts buzzing with an emergency alert. Weather bulletin? Nope - it's an AMBER Alert, because a kidnapped child from Maryland might be in North Carolina. My phone buzzed loudly while I was driving, so it startled me, creating a potentially dangerous situation for myself and the other cars around me. That was the only alert I got buzzed with, but my wife's* phone buzzed just like that with the same information repeating every 15 minutes, and on her phone (unlike mine), there is no way to turn the repeat alerts off without turning off the alerts altogether.

(The girl was found safe at a hotel in Florence, SC, by the way. I haven't been able to gather from news stores whether the AMBER Alert was responsible for her safe return. Also of note: the "kidnapper" was actually her father, but he allegedly just murdered the child's mother, so I suppose the AMBER Alert was appropriate, even though it was a sort of "domestic" dispute. On the other hand, if the child was in fact in danger, she may have already been killed before she would have been found. That's another critique of the AMBER Alert system: in cases where children's lives actually are in danger, AMBER Alerts are almost always too late.)

Well, anyway, my wife* and I both decided to turn off the AMBER Alert notifications we get on our phone. Does that make us bad people? Especially considering that we're parents ourselves?

(* - My wife's name is Amber, so I'm referring to her as "my wife" here just to eliminate confusion.)

Here's my take on all of this. I, personally, don't think AMBER Alerts should be sent to phones in the form of an emergency bulletin, the same way that a Tornado Warning would be. An AMBER Alert is not something that you need to STOP YOUR CAR RIGHT THIS MINUTE AND READ, which is what an emergency bulletin should be in my opinion. If you're out driving and a Tornado Warning has been issued for your location, that's something you need to know that very minute for your own safety. But from the perspective of an ordinary civilian, reading an AMBER Alert notification is not that urgent. I think a plain old ordinary text message would be fine, the kind that we can wait to read until it is safe to do so. Making all AMBER Alerts emergency bulletins in this fashion will only irritate many average citizens, resulting in the alerts being turned off, which defeats the purpose.

Here's another thing about AMBER Alerts I don't understand. In Florida, when an AMBER Alert is issued, the license plate and car make/model/color is displayed on highway message boards. Great! In North Carolina, when an AMBER Alert is issued, all that highway message boards will say is "Call 511 for info". I can pretty much guarantee that almost nobody is calling 511 for info. Especially considering that we're supposed to be driving rather than using our phones. How hard would it be to display the license plate / car information directly on the electronic message board? Florida does it. Why can't North Carolina?

Personally, given how often these people end up at hotels, I think broadcasting information, names, and pictures if possible to every hotel check-in desk in the country might be the most effective thing law enforcement could do in these child abduction cases. Does this already happen? If not, it should. But if you ask me, broadcasting this information to everyone's cell phone as an urgent emergency message is certainly NOT the way to go.

No comments: