Some Bay Area residents were jolted awake Monday night when they received unexpected Amber Alerts about two siblings who were reported missing out of San Diego County.
Just before 11 p.m., an emergency alert sounded on mobile devices alerting Californians that an Amber Alert had been issued and that authorities were looking for a blue four-door Nissan Versa with California license plate number 6WCU986.
The alert was for Hannah Anderson, 16, and her brother, 8-year-old Ethan Anderson, who were reported missing Monday night. The previous day, their mother was found dead inside the burned home of 40-year-old James Lee DiMaggio in the San Diego County community of Boulevard.
DiMaggio is suspected of kidnapping the children and authorities say he may be headed to Texas or Canada in the Nissan.
The Amber Alerts to cellphones were sent out as part of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which was rolled out nationwide at the start of this year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The alerts are designed to inform people of emergencies, including extreme weather or natural disasters. They are received by certain, newer cellphones that have the built-in capability to receive them.
The alert, which looks like a text message, is short with basic information about the incident and instructions for any follow-up action to take. The message causes a special tone and vibration in the phone that is receiving it.
San Francisco resident Todd Lappin, 46, said his phone started making an “unholy noise” while he was having a drink with a friend. He said it was a sound the gadget had never made before, and was reminiscent of emergency alerts that interrupt TV and radio broadcasting.
He said it seemed like his phone had gone into “nuclear attack mode.”
After seeing that it was an Amber Alert and not news that “the Soviets are attacking,” “it prompted me to dismiss it and roll my eyes.”
However, he said he supports the intentions behind the notification system.
“I’m glad to know that it exists, but if you are going to activate that you have to be careful when you use it,” he said.
“The last thing you want is people to unsubscribe or start tuning it out,” he said.
Lappin is worried that the annoying sound and seemingly random message—the alert had no background on the kidnapping or the missing children—will discourage people from using the notification system.
“It should be for imminent danger that we should all be aware of,” he said. “That’s what I expect to hear when there’s an earthquake, or something where I need to take action.”
Cellphone owners who received the alerts can “opt out” by changing the settings on their phones. Those having trouble doing so can contact their service providers for assistance.
Amber Alerts are issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which works with local authorities, including the California Highway Patrol, to send out the message.
The CHP sends out the alerts through a variety of channels, including social media, but it is FEMA that sends out the phone alerts.
Sean Finerty, a San Francisco resident, was awakened by the blaring noise from his phone and said it was startling.
“For the longest time I thought it was the fire alarm or burglar alarm of another building in my alley. Eventually, I realized my phone was lit up and was the source of the sound, but I thought my phone had some weird error and was about to blow up,” he said.
The 25-year-old said he does not plan to opt out of receiving the alerts.
“I’d like to help out if possible with an Amber Alert,” he said.
Sasha Lekach, Bay City News