Ontario Provincial Police dismissed reports Thursday that it has already begun offering a service that will send Amber Alerts to wireless devices such as personal digital assistants and cell phones.

A Toronto TV station and a radio station

both broadcast stories that police were adding short text messaging to the program, which sends out descriptions of kidnap victims, their abductors and suspect vehicles to the public. The program was established in 1996 in Arlington, Tex., following the kidnapping and murder of nine-year old Amber Hagerman.

First launched in Ontario three years ago, Amber Alerts have been regularly issued by police investigating the abduction of children under 18. Earlier this week, for example, an Amber Alert was issued for a missing six-week-old baby girl in Toronto. The program is a voluntary partnership of police, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and the media , and is facilitated by the OPP on behalf of the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

CodeAmber.org, the program’s official Web site, recently announced it is providing Amber Alerts to wireless devices in 50 U.S. states plus Puerto Rico and Canada. The site says users who sign up for the service can expect to receive 12 to 15 messages per month per device, and that the service will be provided by the Smart-Traveler Message System.

But according to OPP sergeant Terry Blace, the OPP Amber Alert Steering Committee has yet to choose a Canadian telecommunications provider to offer such a service. 

“We are in talks with different companies, but there’s been no agreement to do this at all,” he said, acknowledging, “it is probably something we will be considering.” 

Blace said the news stories from the TV and radio station had come as a surprise, and he was not aware of the message on the CodeAmber.org site until he was informed of it by ITBusiness.ca. The steering committee is concerned that any telco partner be highly reputable, he said, given that it will be handling such personal data.

“We have to ensure anyone who comes on board in distributing that information has availability 24 hours a day – if it comes in at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, they have to be able to take the text and send it out,” he said. “We can’t afford to have a system in place where we can’t guarantee that that information is correct.”

Several Web sites and online magazines have reported that Canada is already offering the service, provided through Mandeville, La.-based BigHits.net. Calls to BigHits.net president Bryant Harper, who is also listed as the primary contact at CodeAmber.org, were not returned at press time.

In Washington, Nextel Communications Inc. recently said it had joined the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to develop an Amber Alert wireless solution, and that it has already conducted pilots of the service for public-safety agencies in Pennsylvania. While Nextel has said its Amber Alerts will be free to customers, the notice on CodeAmber.org warns that some carriers may charge for the SMS text messages.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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