In October 2018, California AMBER Alert Co-Coordinator Ed Bertola recognized the California Highway Patrol (CHP) was in a bind. He had been working for months to improve the state’s AMBER Alert plan, but he did not have everything up as anticipated, and the changes the CHP had made had not been tested. However, when California saw three AMBER Alerts within 24 hours; a decision had to be made to go forward with what was in place.
“When you have that many alerts you really need all the resources you can get,” said Bertola. “So we hit launch - the button actually says Launch.”
The latest alert went out and the child was recovered safely in a short time. However, Bertola and his team were finding only 13% of the people were able to access additional details about the alert at the CHP website using the link provided in the initial message. While this percentage represented an increase in access, in fact more than any alert before it, Bertola and his team at CHP knew even greater reach was needed, and critically important in these cases where minutes matter in law enforcement’s ability to safely recover abducted children.
“We were happy [with the response], but at the same time knew we were missing an important piece because we were able to see the difference between those who attempted to access our website versus those who actually got in,” said Bertola.
The CHP began working to improve the state’s AMBER Alert plan because they found it impossible to convey all the information the public needed in 90 characters. Also, CHP’s AMBER Alert flyers were not being picked up by media, nor shared on social media.
“Public engagement wasn’t very high,” said Bertola.
He explained that feedback indicated CHP was seen as providing ‘only enough information,’ resulting in people being either confused or scared. In response, CHP reached out to broadcasters and the agency’s Community Outreach and Media Relations for input on improving their flyers.
“They said, ‘Your flyers were obviously designed by people without any experience in marketing,’ and I said, ‘You’re exactly right,’” explained Bertola. “I have zero experience in marketing. Can you help us?”
CHP got help from media professionals in simplifying the flyer to ensure it included all the information the public would need during an alert – without any ‘cop jargon.’ The format has since been adopted for Endangered Missing Advisories, Silver Alerts, and Blue Alerts.
During this time, more people began using streaming or satellite services instead of watching TV or listening to radio through traditional broadcasting channels. As a result, they were not seeing AMBER Alerts. Bertola reached out to other states for help, but none had a solution.
In July 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did make it possible to put a URL link in Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Some states had included a URL in past alerts and discovered the links did not work.
The CHP reached out in November 2018 to the URL shortener company ‘Bitly’ to provide a specific link the public could use to get details in alerts. Still, the CHP Information Technology staff cautioned that the agency’s network did not have the bandwidth to handle the traffic generated by hundreds of thousands of people – or more – hitting the information page of their website at once.
The site’s security features were also slowing down traffic. Bertola reached out to different social media companies to see if they could help provide a platform which would support this level of activity with link usage and site visits.
“Twitter was the only one that could set up a page with us where anybody could access that information, whether or not they have ever used Twitter, or have the app,” said Bertola.
Twitter was also willing to not include advertisements on California’s AMBER Alert account. In January 2019, CHP launched its first AMBER Alert using its new Twitter account.
“We had a 98.7% rate of people clicking in to get the AMBER Alert information,” said Bertola.” We reached 3.2 million people in just a matter of minutes.”
“We were able to recover that individual within a matter of minutes and it was directly related to the fact that somebody clicked on that link and it went to the Twitter page. It was amazing.”
The CHP decided to allow people to comment and even leave tips on the Twitter page. Bertola said the public has been good to call out people who leave inappropriate comments during an AMBER Alert. The alerts are immediately removed once the victim has been recovered.
The CHP AMBER Alert Twitter account went from having 10 visitors to 10 million. During the first two years, more than 170 million people have clicked on the AMBER Alert account.
California AMBER Alert 2.0 Timeline
July 2018 – Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) makes the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) capable of having a URL embedded in the message.
July-September 2018 – California Highway Patrol (CHP) tries to find the best method of utilizing the new tool and addresses concerns from the media about lack of consistency and quality of flyers being produced.
October 2018 – CHP launches its first WEA/URL and overloads its website in less than 5 minutes.
November-December 2018 – CHP works to find a solution to keep the URL directed to the CHP website. The first alert using the URL did not allow everyone to get all the details about the child abduction. The URL shortener Bitly shows only 13% of users who clicked on the message made it to the CHP website. CHP considers alternatives to the CHP website and selects Twitter to house the alerts page. Twitter helps CHP set up an alert-specific page.
January 2019 – CHP approves the use of Twitter to activate AMBER and Blue alerts using the new WEA/URL format.
February 2019 – CHP approves the use of WEA/URL for Silver Alerts and Endangered Missing Advisories (EMA) and begins training to explain the reduction in WEA/URL activation areas based on information from the investigation and supporting analytics from previous cases.
January 2019-present – CHP sees a more than 50% reduction in the duration of active AMBER Alerts using the new process when the CHP is contacted within six hours of the abduction. information is reaching the public, and they are able to act quickly to receive additional information and offer tips and leads in the case.
The success of the newly revamped AMBER Alert also allows the CHP to direct the alerts to a more localized area based on the information gathered during the investigation. Updated alerts are issued when significant new information becomes available.
“Everybody wants to go statewide for AMBER Alerts all the time, and we feel the same and we wish we could, but we don’t want to desensitize the public and oversaturate them with alerts so that they opt out of receiving them,” said Bertola.
Another significant change is that broadcasters are getting the AMBER Alerts at the same time as everyone else. This means broadcasters do not have time to prepare more information for the public when an alert is activated. However, broadcasters can reach more people beyond those areas where messages are received by cell phones.
The WEA can also be redirected or expanded based on updated information. Even though the radius of the alerts is now smaller, the results continue to grow stronger.
Bertola said they have learned a lot and made mistakes along the way. The CHP is doing more training to help California law enforcement agencies and other AMBER Alert partners understand the newly revamped child abduction notification plan. They are also providing information to other state AMBER Alert coordinators to support their ability to update and strengthen their plans.
“From the moment we hit launch until recovery, the time has decreased over 50%,” said Bertola. “Sometimes it takes hours, and other times only minutes. As everyone knows, every minute counts in this situation.”
Recent CHP Public Alerting Successes:
On a Saturday in October, California issued three WEAs for Silver Alerts and all the victims were found within just a few miles of the alleged abduction. One suspect was found after a nurse discovered that a “John Doe” in a hospital room was the missing person being sought in a Silver Alert. Another victim was found when a citizen saw the alert, walked out of a store, and saw the missing person sitting by a tree. The third was found by a neighbor.
A mother and her child were safely recovered, due to the quick reaction by two youths who were riding their bicycles and received the alert on their cellphones about a kidnap for ransom. When the WEA was sent, they clicked the URL and accessed the CHP Twitter page with the flyer and associated pictures from the alert. They recognized the suspect vehicle parked near a tree, partially obscured from view. They immediately went home and had their parents call 911. Officers found the mother and her child gagged, but still alive, near the vehicle.
In another case, a suspect was believed to be taking a victim from San Jose, California, to Mexico. The alert went out in the coastal region of California south of San Jose. A group of people recognized the suspect’s vehicle at a gas station. The citizens all positioned their cars so the suspect could not leave until law enforcement arrived.
“When the sheriff’s department got there, people were high-fiving each other,” said Bertola. “It’s amazing to see because those are the feelings we all feel whenever we have a safe recovery.”
In thinking about several successful alerts over the past 18 months, and commenting on the improvements overall, Bertola remarked, “Now the public is able to engage in a new way. Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from them is, ‘Thank you. Thank you for giving us all the information instantly.’ If I don’t do anything else in my career, I feel very proud that this is making a difference for all these individuals. Because they’re not statistics – they’re people.”
This new process has not only changed the game for AMBER Alerts, but significantly improved the other alerts California administers.
“With the success the new process has brought, we’re not done yet. We will continue to adjust our program, use new tools, expand our reach, and help anyone who wants to adopt this new process. This is a team effort - when one improves, we all improve,” concluded Bertola.