PRESCOTT- When authorities became aware that kidnapping victim Cassidy Hayes might be in Arizona Monday, June 22, tens of thousands of smartphones sounded a loud tone and a text message warned users of an Amber Alert.
Residents in the Valley are familiar with this system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)-they get fairly frequent alerts this time of year, warning of severe monsoon weather.
Department of Public Safety Director Col. Frank Milstead said on Tuesday that he realizes the alerts can seem annoying-he pointed to the Phoenix-area weather alerts that happen "in the middle of the night and it's about a dust storm"-but the Amber Alerts are important.
"We use it infrequently and, I think, we use it for the right cases," he said. "This is not about 'somebody didn't come home,' this is that we know there's an abduction."
The WEA system has been operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since 2012. In 2006, the federal government passed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act, charging the FCC with creating a network that would use technology called "cell broadcast" to deliver the messages to large groups.
The alerts go out to modern smart phones when the agency authorizes them. The alerts are geographically-based, so not everybody receives every warning.
Think of it as the 21st century equivalent of the old television and radio Emergency Broadcast System.
Alerts fall into three categories:
Presidential: Alerts issued by the President or a designee, generally dealing with national security;
Imminent Threat: Alerts that include severe man-made or natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or monsoon storms, where an imminent threat to life or property exists;
Amber Alerts: Alerts that meet the U.S. Department of Justice's criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child.
The message your phone receives will be no more than 90 characters long and you're not charged for it.
It works on a system independent of your usual text messaging app.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that at least 19 children nationwide have been rescued because of tips received via WEA Amber Alerts. It's difficult to assess the number of people saved by WEA alerts about severe weather, but there are many anecdotal examples like the 29 children saved from a tornado in Connecticut by a camp counselor who got an alert and moved the kids to safety minutes before the camp was destroyed.
Today's phones come with WEA activated by default. Your wireless carrier allows you to deactivate Imminent Threat and Amber alerts, but not Presidential alerts. To deactivate alerts, contact your carrier or check their website for instructions.
Or, you could just do what they do at Prescott's Tec Rehab, where they have a drawer full of phones in for repairs.
"We had, probably, 25 phones all go off at the same time," said Tec Rehab's Chris Seistrup, laughing.
"I just hit the volume-down button," he said.
Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2038, or 928-642-7705.