By Karen Kelly
At 3 am on Friday, July 12, cellphone users throughout Ontario awoke to the ominous buzzing of an AMBER Alert. The accompanying text message was equally chilling: two young boys had been missing for hours and were believed to be in danger. When they were found unharmed soon after, officials credited the emergency communications system.
Then came the complaints.
Thousands of angry Ontario residents called 911 to complain about being awakened in the middle of the night. Others were offended by these complaints themselves.
Professor Josh Greenberg from the School of Journalism and Communication watched the public debate unfold on social media. He studies crisis, emergency and risk communication plans, priorities, activities and strategies created by governments, corporations and other major institutional actors.
“Smartphones were added to the existing emergency alert system just a couple years ago,” he says. “The addition of mobile devices gives officials the capacity to reach more Canadians more quickly. But in times of emergency, it also serves as a test of our shared norms of what it means to be a member of society, which is really interesting to me.”
AMBER is an acronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response” and was created as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas in 1996. The alert is activated by police who believe a child under age 18 has been abducted and is in imminent danger.
“When an alert is issued, officials send a localized notification that emits an alarm and displays a warning message along a dedicated path on the LTE network,” explains Greenberg. “There’s a certain logic at play for immediate access to information. Emergency officials are trying to keep pace with what technology allows and what our culture of ‘always on’ media use encourages.”
Reassurance vs. Effectiveness
As Greenberg points out, any parent faced with an abduction would want immediate action. But are the alerts effective? He cites a 2016 study in the Journal of Crime and Justice entitled “Does AMBER Alert ‘save lives’? An empirical analysis and critical implications” that considered 448 abduction cases in which an AMBER alert was activated in the United States.
The researchers found that the key factor in determining the outcome of a child abduction case is not the rapid response time per se, but the likely nature and intentions of the perpetrator.
“When you look at the literature, if there’s an intent to kill, it normally happens quickly. AMBER alerts don’t prevent that from happening,” explains Greenberg. “However, they do help identify abducted children and lead to a faster recovery of those children.”
As a result, he stands firmly on the side of AMBER alerts.
“Emergencies demand collective action, and when a child’s life is at risk, that should be an emergency for everyone,” says Greenberg. “It’s a test of our willingness to come together and define something that cuts across the many things that divide us – our politics, cultural identities, where we live, and the issues that matter to us. We should all be united in the belief that every child is precious and deserving of safety.”
Alert Fatigue and Scope Creep
However, Greenberg says emergency responders are well aware of the risk of both “alert fatigue” and “scope creep”. With alert fatigue, people could start ignoring the warnings. With scope creep, officials could issue them too liberally.
In Ontario, there are 21 scenarios across eight categories that can trigger an AMBER alert. The provincial website describes these as “recommending immediate actions to protect citizens, their families and others when there is an imminent threat to life, public safety or property.”
In his work with emergency responders, Greenberg has found they are guided by an essential belief: “It is far better to be over-cautious than under-cautious.”
Eventually, Greenberg believes people will get used to the idea that these alerts can come at any time. One simple solution he recommends for those who don’t wish to be awoken in the middle of the night: keep your phone in another room.
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