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Ask a Journalist: What is an AMBER Alert, and how do they work?

A WHQR listener called the newsroom to ask about AMBER Alerts: how do they work, and where do they come from? What happens after? WHQR’s News Director Ben Schachtman interviewed reporter Camille Mojica to see what she found out for our ‘Ask a Journalist’ segment…

Ben: Ok, Cami, we recently had a listener call in to ask us about something we all have received at some point in our lives:

Dr. Charles Lewis: “...Recently there was an AMBER Alert out. And it got me thinking about AMBER Alerts, we really don't know much about them. I just would like to talk to someone about maybe possibly doing a story about them… Thank you for your time. Have a great day.”

Ben: So, what is an AMBER alert?

Cami: In short, an AMBER alert is issued when a child has been criminally abducted and/or is in danger or at risk of death. So, this really is the highest level of severity. But I also want to talk about the history a little bit, and where it came from. The AMBER Alert System began in 1996 when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children.

Ben: And does AMBER stand for something? A name?

Cami: Unfortunately, yes. AMBER stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was created as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, and then brutally murdered. Other states and communities soon set up their own AMBER plans as the idea was adopted across the country.

Ben: Wow, that’s horrible, but also kind of incredible.

Cami: No, really, it is. The level of web-weaving and work between all different kinds of agencies, local, state and national is insane.

Ben: Okay, so let’s get into that part. What’s the process?

Cami: Yeah, so here’s the thing. AMBER alerts have a specific criteria that need to be met before they’re sent out. The child needs to be 17 years old or younger; the abduction is not known or suspected to be by a parent of the child, unless the child’s life is suspected to be in danger of injury or death; the child is not a runaway or voluntarily missing; and the abduction has been reported to and investigated by a law enforcement agency.

Ben: So is that like local police, or sheriff’s office?

Cami: For us, that’s the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Lt. Jerry Brewer with the Sheriff’s Office told me that the “investigation” portion isn’t a long investigation the way you’d see on Dateline or something.

Lt. Brewer: “I mean, it's pretty quick. Once they, you know, have enough evidence to support it and they put it out.”

Cami: So the language for the criteria mostly boils down to, is your child missing and not a runaway, is their life in danger.

Cami: Now, once law enforcement has determined that a child has been abducted and the abduction meets AMBER Alert criteria, law enforcement notifies broadcasters and state transportation officials. The actual alert is created by the NC Center for Missing Persons.

AMBER Alerts interrupt regular programming and are broadcast on radio and television and DOT highway signs. And when you get them to your phone, that’s because your cell provider has agreed to opt into disseminating the alerts to its customers.

Ben: So it’s not part of some conspiracy…?

Cami: No.

Ben: Ok, ok — and Amber alerts are similar to our Emergency Alert System, or EAS, right? That’s the loud alert that comes over your radio — and sometimes your phone — when there’s a tornado or flooding?

Cami: Absolutely! They’re all linked through the FCC. But one main difference is that we can override the EAS if we don’t want it to play over a particular program — but the FCC has decided AMBER alerts will override all programming and play over the airwaves into your radios.

Ben: Okay, what about data? Are there records of these alerts?

Cami: Yes, data about abducted persons, and especially children is actually pretty well documented once they’ve been reported to law enforcement. You can find a list of active and previous AMBER alerts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website for national ones, and the NC Center for Missing Persons for North-Carolina-specific alerts.

Cami: This definitely isn’t a happy topic. But, I want to end on some hopeful numbers. As of May 1, 2022, the AMBER Alert system has contributed to the recovery of 1,114 children and wireless emergency alerts resulted in the rescue of 123 children. And, AMBER Alert cases have shown that some perpetrators release abducted children after hearing the AMBER Alert.

Ben: Well, Cami Mojica, thank you for taking a look into this.

Cami: You’re welcome, and remember, stay alert when you receive an AMBER notification. It could save a child’s life.

Relevant Links:

National AMBER Alerts
North Carolina AMBER Alerts

Camille hails from Long Island, NY where the exuberance of sports season never ended. She graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Chasing stories has been a passion of hers since she was little, channeling itself through her art and writing. Camille’s journey in audio is never ending and she’s served as a podcast producer on multiple shows. When she’s not working she enjoys chatting and gaming with friends, reading, and creating digital art.