AMBER Alert now available as e-mail, text message

Ontario’s AMBER Alert program, which helps police find abducted children, is getting a boost from a partnership between the Government of Ontario, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and Bell Canada. Now, alerts will be issued via text messages and e-mail to anyone in Ontario who subscribes to the service.

The AMBER (America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert program is a warning system that makes the public aware of an abducted child, where police believe the child is in danger of bodily harm or death. The program was created in 1996 after the kidnapping and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Tex., and was introduced into Ontario in 2003.

There have been three AMBER Alerts in Ontario over the past two months, and each abducted child has been recovered. But the participation of the public is essential to the program’s success. Operating on the Bell 1X digital voice and data network, AMBER Alert text messages and e-mail will help Ontario residents learn of the search for an abducted child in the first minutes after an alert has been issued.

“It’s expanding our reach, because AMBER Alert is absolutely dependent on timely messaging to say someone has been abducted and here’s what we know about it,” said Monte Kwinter, Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister with the Government of Ontario, who was the first to sign up for the service last Friday. “It’s very time-sensitive.”

After the OPP issues an alert, the Ontario Association of Broadcasters interrupts regular programming to broadcast bulletins and the Ministry of Transportation posts information on electronic highway message signs. Last year, the alerts were made available on 9,000 lottery terminals in Ontario. And as of last Friday, these alerts are now available via text messages and e-mail.

While there is limited text capability on cell phones, an alert will make subscribers aware that a child has been adducted and they can go to the Web site for more details, such as a description of the child, the abductor and/or get-away vehicle.

“All of this is free and we’re hoping that other carriers will also buy into the program,” said Kwinter. “There are some administrative costs and Bell is picking that up.”

For Bell Mobility subscribers, the service is free. “If you’re (with) Telus or Rogers or an alternative carrier, there’s a potential cost associated (with) that text message based on the service program that you have with your own phone,” said Paolo Pasquini, spokesperson for Bell Canada, adding there’s no cost to Ontario taxpayers.

The idea to expand the program came about when Bell decided to disseminate AMBER Alerts to its 25,000 Ontario-based employees. At any given time, there are 2,000-plus Bell employees in homes or on the road in communities across the province, said Pasquini. When an alert is issued by the OPP, it will be “pushed” to them automatically.

Bell then decided to expand the program to the public, so anyone in Ontario can sign up for it. To deal with privacy and legal issues, users must log onto Bell’s Web site to indicate they want to participate in the program. They can choose English or French, and have the option of limiting alerts to a specific region by area code.

“If you have an AMBER Alert in Thunder Bay and you live in Toronto, you can limit it to 416 or 905 or both,” said Kwinter. It will also notify subscribers when an alert has been cancelled.

Bell, the OPP and the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services are making a call to action for Ontario residents to register for AMBER Alert notification through Bell’s Web site at www.bell.ca/amberalert.

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