What Is an AMBER Alert and How Is It Used?

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A missing child is a parent's worst nightmare. Thankfully, if the child is in immediate danger, law enforcement escalates the case and sends out an AMBER Alert through the Emergency Alert System.

The AMBER Alert system was created in 1996 and has rescued hundreds of children. As of January 2023, 1,127 children have been rescued due to AMBER Alerts. This partnership between communities and law enforcement agencies has become one of the best methods for finding a missing child. Below we detail what AMBER Alerts are and how they are used in the United States.

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What is an AMBER Alert?

An AMBER Alert is an emergency broadcast made when a child is abducted. It is sent to electronic highway signs, mobile phones, Internet advertisements, and regular programming on radio and television.

The alerts are broadcast in and surrounding the jurisdiction where the abduction occurred, but multi-state AMBER Alerts are issued if law enforcement believes the abductor has or may travel across state lines with the child. AMBER Alerts allow law enforcement to immediately enlist the help of the media and public to find the abducted child.

When did AMBER Alerts start?

The AMBER Alert system began in 1996, after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas. A neighbor immediately reported the kidnapping, and Amber’s parents coordinated with local law enforcement, the FBI, and the media to find their daughter. Unfortunately, Amber did not survive the abduction.

The case deeply impacted the local community. The combined effort of Hagerman’s parents, local law enforcement agencies, and the Texas Association of Radio Managers created the AMBER Alert system. Though the AMBER Alert was named after Hagerman, it is also an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

How does a missing child case vecome an AMBER Alert?

Not every missing child case is broadcast as an AMBER Alert. In 2014, 466,949 children were reported missing. During that same period, 186 AMBER Alerts involving 239 children were issued.

While each state has its own guidelines for issuing an AMBER Alert, the Department of Justice created minimum standards for AMBER Alerts in 2003. U.S. states can choose to adopt these standards or create their own.

  • The child is 17 years old or younger.
  • The child’s name and critical information — weight, height, date of birth, identifying features — have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system.
  • Law enforcement confirms the child was abducted.
  • Law enforcement determines the child is in imminent danger of physical harm or death.
  • Enough descriptive information can be released to the public about the abductor’s vehicle and the victim to help identify and recover the child.

Why aren’t AMBER Alerts issued more frequently?

Part of the reason the AMBER Alert system is so effective is because not all missing child cases are broadcast, so the public pays attention when they receive alerts. Also, many cases of missing children do not meet all the requirements of AMBER Alerts.

Over 85% of missing child cases are runaways where the child is often not in immediate danger. Only 1% of cases are non-family abductions, 2% are cases where the child is lost or injured, and 10% are family abductions. The last 1% are missing young adults between the ages of 18 and 20. Though abductions by strangers do happen, they are not very common.

How effective are AMBER Alerts?

In 2014, half of the children for whom AMBER Alerts were made were recovered within three hours of the alert. It is important that the public respond to AMBER Alerts quickly for the best chance of recovering the victim. Over 95% of abducted children who had AMBER Alerts broadcast in 2014 were recovered unharmed.

The majority of AMBER Alert cases result in recovery, and in 2014 the alert itself played a role in nearly 34% of recoveries. The Department of Justice reports that AMBER Alerts also serve as a deterrent to many people who may consider abducting a child, and in many cases the abductor releases the child after hearing that an AMBER Alert has been issued.

How can parents protect their children?

No adult wants to be a paranoid helicopter parent, but keeping kids safe is top priority. Of AMBER Alert cases in 2014 where the last location of the child is known, 68% were abducted from home. If you are concerned for your child’s safety, a home security system will help you know who is entering your home and may be a threat to your children.

When your child is away from home, it is important to keep a constant line of communication. Safety wearables use GPS technology and are a smart way for parents to always keep a watchful eye on their kids.

Take comfort in the fact that it is very rare a child will go missing. Of the nearly 74 million children in the US, less than one in 100 is reported missing each year. Thankfully, the U.S. AMBER Alert system has saved hundreds of children and likely deterred thousands of abductions.

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Katherine Torres
Written by
Katherine Torres
Katherine has had several years of experience developing and executing multichannel marketing campaigns, but actually started her career path in journalism. Though she switched gears, she continues to be driven by the need to deliver information that can be helpful for individuals. As an owner of two rescue dogs, she is most interested in technology and products that allow her to keep a close eye on her pets when she’s away.

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