Washington The nation's largest Internet service, America Online, will begin transmitting Amber Alerts about abducted children onto the screens of computers, pagers and cell phones of more than 26 million subscribers in dozens of states and cities.
Beginning in early November, warnings issued across the patchwork of communities that use the system will go to AOL users in those areas who request to receive them. All but one of the existing Amber Alert systems are participating with AOL.
"This is really the first time that an entity such as AOL has reached out to all the existing Amber plans across the states," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said.
Amber Alerts began in Arlington, Tex., after the 1996 abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. Law enforcement agencies send to broadcasters descriptions of the missing children, their abductors or other information. The alerts also are broadcast on electronic highway signs.
President Bush is appearing today at the White House Conference on Missing and Exploited Children in Washington amid efforts by activists to expand such electronic notification systems.
According to a fact sheet handed out by the White House, Bush will announce the establishment of a Justice Department Amber Alert coordinator who will work with state and local officials on new nationwide standards for such alerts and disburse $10 million to develop and upgrade these systems.
Some states, like Texas and Oklahoma, already send Amber alerts via e-mail. But the AOL announcement is nationwide and can reach people through the AOL service on their computer desktop, cell phone or pager.
AOL's 26 million members can pre-register by entering their ZIP code to receive alerts in any of the states, counties and cities that participate. Travelers and people near state borders can enter multiple ZIP codes, Graham said.
Graham said the company was "strongly considering" putting Amber Alerts on AOL's market-leading Instant Messenger, which has 150 million members.
"We believe the more individuals that avail themselves of the Amber Alert service will help with the goal of finding abducted children," Graham said.
Joann Donnellan, a spokesman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has guided the Amber Alert system, said the center likes the AOL plan because it is voluntary and targets specific AOL members to receive alerts near them.
"They're not going to spam the country with Amber Alerts," Donnellan said.
Thirty-two children have been found as a result of Amber Alert, including several rescued this summer.
According to the center, about 725,000 children nationwide were reported missing to police last year, or about 2,000 children per day.
AOL is working with Amber Alert systems in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.