How AMBER Alert Works

Getting the Word Out

California AMBER Alert logo
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.