How an Amber Alert on a smartphone saved a child in Minnesota yesterday

An Amber Alert appeared on my phone yesterday. It's a good example of how tech is changing society -- and could aid us even more.

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My iPhone started making a loud chirping sound yesterday.

It wasn’t a new email or text, so I knew something was up. I noticed my wife had a puzzled look on her face -- she has a Motorola Moto X and it was also sounding an alarm. Then, one of my kids received an alert as well.

It turns out that this was the first time any of us had ever received an Amber Alert.

I later received another message in my Facebook stream.

It's a good example of how tech is changing society, even as we keep hearing about distracted driving, people "phubbing" constantly, and tech addiction.

Fortunately, the situation was resolved by the end of the day. I received a second notice saying the Amber Alert was cancelled and the child was found safely. (From the local news reports, a child was picked up at a daycare by a non-custodial parent.)

According to Commander Brian Podany from the Anoka County Sheriff’s Department in Minnesota, a citizen in the area received an alert on a smartphone, saw a black Honda Civic that matched the description of the person who picked up the child (her non-custodial mother), and called 911. Authorities responded and made the arrest.

“This is a valuable tool and a good example of community involvement,” Podany told me.

Amber Alerts are issued through the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. It doesn’t matter which phone you have as long as it is WEA-enabled. The alert is sent to anyone connected to cell towers within a specific area. There is always a repeating chime, a notification, and a vibration. The alerts fall into three categories -- they can be Amber Alerts, related to imminent dangers such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack, and the President of the United States can issue one with an important message.

Sprint first launched the service in 2011. All carriers now participate. In 2013, the Department of Justice initiated an opt-out only program where everyone on cellular networks gets the alert. Your phone has to be “WEA-enabled” (basically, a smartphone or one that can receive the alerts and isn't too old). They are not sent through an SMS or voice network for each carrier but a separate, dedicated channel. This is to prevent any slowdowns that might occur due to congestion.

It’s worth noting that you can block some alerts on your phone -- you have to check with your carrier about it -- but you cannot block alerts from the President.

It made me wonder how this system could be expanded. The main alerts should be opt-out as they are, but an opt-in system could use the same channel and could assist police with other alerts related to major crimes or warnings about dangers in a certain area.

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