How AMBER Alert Works

By: Kevin Bonsor
A red alert light.
Amber alerts are issued when a child is kidnapped. CRMacedonio / Getty Images

A child being kidnapped is a parent's worst nightmare. However, it is a reality that thousands of parents must face each year. In the United States, nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year, or about 2,000 per day, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Approximately one-third of the children reported missing have been kidnapped, and about one-fifth of those kidnapped children have been taken by nonfamily members.

­In response to this tragic problem, many states have established a missing-child response network, commonly called AMBER, which is used to notify the public when a child is abducted. AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) is a program that comprises law enforcement, radio and television media, and a network of electronic highway signs.


In this article, you will learn how this program was developed, how it is used in the recovery of missing children, and about the new legislation that is making AMBER a national program.

Amber Hagerman

­ The AMBER Alert is a lasting tribute to a young girl from Arlington, Texas, who was kidnapped and later killed in 1996. Amber Hagerman, who was 9 years old at the time, was riding her bike when a neighbor heard a scream. The neighbor ran out and saw a man pull Amber off of her bike, throw her into the front seat of his truck and drive away.

Four days later, Amber's body was found in a drainage ditch 4 miles from her house. Her kidnapping and murder remain unsolved.

Amber's death provoked an outcry in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which prompted the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Radio Managers to implement a method of quickly alerting the public, media, and police when a child is kidnapped. That plan, which was the original AMBER Alert plan, called for alerts to be broadcast whenever a child was abducted. In July 1997, radio stations began broadcasting the alerts. Television stations began announcing the alerts in 1999.


Getting the Word Out

California AMBER Alert logo

The impetus behind AMBER and other plans like it is the need to rescue a child in the first few hours after abduction. Officials say that these are critical hours: Each hour that passes gives the abductor an opportunity to take the child farther from home, and gives the abductor more time to harm the child. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 74 percent of children who are abducted and later found murdered were murdered in the first few hours after being taken.

There are more than 90 state and local plans, and each is slightly different, but here is how a typical plan works:


  • Law enforcement confirms that the abduction has actually taken place. AMBER Alerts are not issued for runaways.
  • Law enforcement determines that a missing person meets certain criteria, such as being under 18 years of age and facing harm. Criteria vary from plan to plan. Some plans only activate alerts for children 12 and younger.
  • Law enforcement collects information about the child, the abductor, and possibly the abductor's vehicle, from witnesses.
  • Law enforcement contacts the broadcast media, including television and radio stations.
  • Television and radio stations interrupt their programming to broadcast information about the abduction using the Emergency Alert System (EAS), formerly the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). Bulletins include the child's description and any pertinent information gathered from witnesses.
  • Law enforcement coordinates with Department of Transportation officials to display information on electronic highway signs to increase public awareness of the abduction.

If the plan works, the public phones in tips to law enforcement, and in a best-case scenario the information leads to the recovery of the child.

On April 30, 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law the PROTECT Act of 2003, which in effect creates a nationwide AMBER Alert system. PROTECT (Prosecuting Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today) also includes new legislation to thwart child pornography.

Amber Hagerman's mother was at the White House to witness the new law being signed by President Bush.

It is important to expand the Amber Alert systems so police and sheriffs' departments gain thousands or even millions of allies in the search for missing children," President Bush said moments before signing the new legislation. "Every person who would think of abducting a child can know that a wide net will be cast. They may be found by a police cruiser, or by the car right next to them on a highway. These criminals can know that any driver they pass could be the one that spots them and brings them to justice.

The law as it related to the AMBER Alert plan provided for the following:

  • An AMBER Alert coordinator at the U.S. Department of Justice . Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, currently holds this position.
  • A $30 million budget to expand, enhance, and link the local and state programs that currently exist. The funding also helped to create AMBER training programs for law enforcement and broadcasters, and help improve the EAS. As of September 2006, the Department of Justice has spent $12 million of these funds.


Success Stories

Sharon Timmons testifies in front of a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee about how an AMBER Alert affected the safe return of her 10-year-old daughter, Nicole.
Photo courtesy

As AMBER Alert grows nationwide, it has had a huge impact on the recovery of abducted children. AMBER Alert systems are credited with saving 200 children as of September 2006.

Here are a few recent success stories:


  • Deer River, MN (September 2006) A 4-year-old boy was abducted by his mother's boyfriend, a registered sex offender. The boy is blind, wheelchair-bound, and has epilepsy and cerebral palsy. An AMBER alert was issued and information about the boyfriend's van was posted on highway signs. Within a day of the child's abduction, someone spotted the suspect's vehicle and called police. He was safely recovered and returned to his mother.
  • Memphis, TN (July 2006) A 16-year-old girl was abducted by a man who beat her friend with a tire iron. An AMBER Alert was quickly issued, and a Georgia citizen who was aware of the Tennessee AMBER alert saw the suspect's vehicle and contacted police. The search shifted to Georgia and a Georgia AMBER alert was issued. The child was safely recovered and the suspect was apprehended.
  • Barron County, WI (June 2006) A 16-month-old baby was abducted by his mother from his grandmother's home. His mother did not have custody of the child. She met up with his father, who was also non-custodial. The child's mother appeared to be high on drugs at the time of the abduction. The two abductors heard the AMBER alert and dropped the baby off at a friend's house. He was recovered safely.
  • Park Hills, MO (May 2006) The father of a 4-year-old girl abducted her and her mother at knifepoint. Because he threatened to hurt them, authorities issued an AMBER alert. They received a tip that the father planned to take them out of state and AMBER alerts were activated in the nearby states of Illinois and Wisconsin. Someone recognized the vehicle from the AMBER Alert and notified authorities. The girl and her mother were safely recovered.
  • Ramapo, NY (April 2006) A 13-year-old girl was abducted while walking home from school. A car stopped next to her and witnesses saw the car's passengers push the child into the truck of the car before speeding off. Authorities issued an AMBER alert, and a woman who saw it on TV noticed the car described in the alert was on her property. She called police, who arrived to find the child still locked in the trunk of the car. She was recovered safely.

The expansion of AMBER Alert to a nationwide system could mean that fewer parents will have to face the nightmare of child abduction.

For more information on AMBER Alert and related topics, check out the links on the next page.