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Nextel develops free text-based Amber Alerts

WASHINGTON-Nextel Communications Inc. has joined with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to develop an Amber Alert wireless solution, one of three efforts under way to address the issue of finding missing children quickly via wireless.

“At Nextel, we believe supporting the efforts of the public-safety community is not an opportunity; it is an obligation,” said Timothy Donahue, Nextel chief executive officer.

Donahue appeared at a July 12 press briefing unveiling the program with John Walsh, who founded the national center after his son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. He is now host of “America’s Most Wanted.”

Following the initial pilot of the service for public-safety agencies in Pennsylvania, Nextel said it hopes to expand the availability of wireless Amber Alerts to additional customers through the Emergency Alert System. Wireless alerts would be transmitted via text message to customers in relevant geographic areas, based on cell site, said Barry West, Nextel chief technology officer. But first, Nextel has to coordinate cell-site information with relevant area code, ZIP code and EAS information.

Customers will have to opt in to participate in the program, said Donahue. Walsh said that opting-in was critical because there is a fear that the public will become desensitized to the urgency if they receive too many Amber Alert messages.

Amber Alerts will be free to customers, Nextel said. The wireless carrier said the integrity of original alert messages created for distribution by state Amber Alert coordinators will be kept intact, a vital requirement for ensuring that information about the child and his or her suspected abductor is as accurate as possible. Nextel said it has worked with the Pennsylvania State Police and Communication Laboratories-a leading supplier of emergency management communications and warning systems-to construct a platform for providing primary distribution of Amber Alerts. It has offered this template, free of charge to the rest of the industry.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, which began looking at using wireless technology for Amber Alerts following the arrival of Steve Largent as president, believes that Nextel may have one piece of the puzzle.

“There is a question about whether their solution can be applied universally,” said John Walls, CTIA vice president of communications. “We certainly embrace any advance in Amber Alert initiatives and are eager to see the application that Nextel is suggesting in actual practice.”

CTIA is focusing on the delivery of the message from the national center to all the different carriers and thus all their customers, said Walls. “We want to integrate the technology with information in a way that everybody wants it.”

BeyondMissing Inc. also has been offering customers of all wireless carriers the opportunity to sign up to receive Amber Alerts since 2002. BeyondMissing was founded by Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, a kidnap/murder victim.

BeyondMissing claims its system which allows anyone to sign up to receive Amber Alert information, is superior to the system being advanced by the national center because the national center relies on state coordinators.

“The whole plan that has been developed is flawed at its foundation because it is a state-based system. This has to be a local issue because kidnapping is a local issue,” said Klaas. A person abducted in Dover, Del., could quickly be in any one of nine different states, Klaas said.

Klaas said BeyondMissing had been in talks with AT&T Wireless Services Inc. before AWS decided to join in the CTIA effort. AWS confirmed the talks, saying it went with CTIA because a national approach would be the most effective.

Nextel said it was not aware of BeyondMissing.

In August, the Federal Communications Commission plans to launch an inquiry on possible Emergency Alert System reform.

The Clinton administration produced a 2000 report advocating the integration of advanced technologies, such as wireless, into the EAS. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), presumptive Democratic vice-presidential candidate, has sponsored legislation to modernize the nation’s emergency warning system.


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