ANNAPOLIS – With the growing number of alerts — code blues at local schools or color-coded federal terrorist warnings — Maryland officials want no confusion when asking the public’s help in searching for an abducted child.
When a child goes missing in the future, Maryland’s highway message boards will read “Child AMBER Alert,” State Police said Wednesday.
“We are playing it safe,” said Maryland State Police Lt. Barry Leese. “The message was changed so that people do not get confused with amber being a color and the program.”
The change came in response to reports that motorists thought “AMBER Alert,” as the signs used to read, referred to terrorist threats in the area. The state’s first AMBER Alert was used Feb. 11, 2003, when police were looking for a man they suspected of abducting a baby in Baltimore.
“Six months ago the AMBER Alert was highly publicized, so we were surprised that people were confused,” Leese said.
“We are trying to make this work,” said Chip Weinman, president of Maryland DC Delaware Broadcasters Association. “We realized that until we are able to do a complete education campaign there remains an issue that some people might not know what the AMBER Alert is versus other civil emergencies.”
The state is committed to the program, which has been effective elsewhere, Weinman said.
“If a child is missing we need to find them,” he said.
The purpose of the AMBER Alert plan — America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response — is to broadcast vital information about a child’s abduction to the public as close to the time of the abduction as possible.
After the state’s first alert, in which a description of a suspect vehicle was displayed above the state’s highways, the Child Exploitation Subcommittee/Amber Plan Committee met in Washington, D.C., to discuss its effectiveness and possible improvements.
Large highway message boards will read the full message while smaller highway signs will carry “Child Alert.” Posted below the message — if room permits — will be information about any suspect and instructions to call 911.
“We recommended this change,” said Joann Donnellan, spokeswoman for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. “We want people to know immediately to search for an abducted child instead of thinking it’s a terrorist attack.”
On Feb. 7, the Bush administration increased the terrorist threat level to orange, or high, in response to increased communications among terrorist cells. The program’s point is to disseminate information quickly, she said, “and confusion doesn’t help.”
The program has saved the lives of 45 children nationwide, but some agencies said there is still a need to educate the public and the agencies that transmit and respond to the alert.
“(The change) clears up the confusion about the word amber,” said Jenni Thompson, spokeswoman for the Polly Klaas Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. The foundation launched a national campaign in August 2002 to push for full statewide programs. Currently 39 states have implemented the plan.
When the AMBER Alert was first used in California, hundreds of women called in saying their name was Amber, Thompson said.
“We are excited about the program and once all the bugs are worked out, we’ll get better and better at this. It’s about public education and all of those steps take time. But we have come a long way in short amount of time,” she said.
The AMBER Alert program in Maryland is a partnership between local police and sheriff departments, the State Police, the Maryland Center for Missing Children, the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland DC Delaware Broadcasters’ Association, the Cable Telecommunications Association of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia, and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.