"The first thing to stress is for parents to call police right away," says Pa. State Police Communications Director Ryan Tarkowski. "So often, parents will try to look themselves, and not involve authorities, and that can take valuable time."
Calling 911 puts parents and guardians in touch with their local police departments. While those departments themselves do not declare Amber Alerts, they will bring in the State Police Department which can.
"That's all run out of our watch center in Harrisburg. 24/7, 365 days a year we support local police." Tarkowski says local agencies "would notify the watch center. There is somebody with the Amber Alert program who is on call 24/7."
Not every missing child case is an Amber Alert case. Law enforcement in Pennsylvania and across the country have criteria for the highest level missing child alert:
- The abducted child must be under 18.
- The abducted child is believed to be in imminent danger of death or serious injury.
- Additional material should be available that could lead to the discovery of the child, including photos of the child or the suspect, the time the child was last seen, and other reliable witness information.
Once the decision is made to declare the Amber Alert, the State Police Department, through its watch center and the on-call Amber Alert supervisor, activates its network to get out word of the missing child to as many people as possible.
Perhaps the most noticeable alarm is the one that now goes out automatically to millions of cellphone users.
At the same time, using a computer that the on-call supervisor always has on hand, police alert the media and send the audio message that airs on radio and television. Penndot will display information on highways across the state with its electronic billboards; even the Pennsylvania Lottery takes part, by using its electronic signs at sales locations to spread the details of the missing child.
Pa. State Police aren't working alone either. Amber Alerts go to all local law enforcement agencies, as well as to neighboring states and departments across the county.
The goal, of course, is to find missing children as quickly as possible. Since Pennsylvania rolled out its Amber Alert program in 2002, it has helped in the safe recovery of almost 100 children.
While there are specific requirements to elevate the disappearance of a child into an Amber Alert, police do not want parents to wait to call 911, even if they do not believe their case fits the criteria.
"Parents should err on the side of caution and if they believe their child is missing, please, please, call authorities immediately," Tarkowski says.
AlertPA is a free service that allows Pennsylvania residents to have Amber Alerts and other personalized information like weather alerts and health notifications sent directly to them during an emergency.
All of us have a role in the protection of Pennsylvania's kids. Individuals need to pay attention and respond immediately when an Amber Alert is issued. The same immediate action is true if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is dedicated to keeping kids safe and keeping people accountable. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 to report it. For more information and resources, visit KeepKidsSafe.pa.gov website.
This story was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.