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Homeland Security picks up missing-kid tech

Agency is to test Amber Alert technology, used to track abducted kids, in program to improve nationwide warning system.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to try out updated Amber Alert technology, which is used to help recover abducted children, in a program to improve the U.S. warning system.

The department's Federal Emergency Management Agency has been involved in a pilot program with public TV broadcasters, cell phone operators and Internet service providers in the Washington metropolitan area to see if extra digital spectrum from public broadcasters could be used to transmit alerts to cell phones.

FEMA plans to use a new Amber Alert Web portal to help augment that pilot program, which it hopes to extend to a permanent nationwide system, said Reynold Hoover, director of the Office of National Security Coordination at the agency.

"What we've done so far has been all about proof of concept," Hoover said. "Now we know we can send these alerts over the digital spectrum. But we've been missing the interface between the state emergency manager and the general public who will sign up for the alerts. It's an absolutely essential piece of the puzzle."

The new Amber Alert technology enables law enforcement officials to quickly load information onto the Web portal from anywhere they can get an Internet connection. That information is automatically distributed using various formats to cell phones, e-mail addresses and handheld computers.

The technology, released last summer, is an improvement over the older system, which is based on sometimes unreliable radio technology, said Chris Warner, the founding partner of the Amber Alert 911 Consortium, which developed the technology in cooperation with several technology companies.

The use of Amber Alert in the warning system was mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, signed into law in December by President Bush. It calls for the homeland security body's Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, or NASCIO, to test how a Web-based Amber Alert-like warning system could fit into a new national alert program.

FEMA is close to finalizing the details of the testing agreement with NASCIO and the Amber Alert 911 Consortium to use the technology, Hoover said. An announcement is expected later this month.

It also includes software developed by ESRI that pinpoints the location of an abduction and sends out emergency messages targeted to that locale. Using this information, the software can determine which highways or roads the suspect could take, with estimates on how far the suspect could get on these routes.

Chris Dixon, project coordinator for NASCIO, said the Amber Alert technology could easily be adapted for use by local law enforcement and state officials to warn the public about a variety of incidents including terrorist attacks, traffic incidents or natural disasters such as the tsunami that hit Asia at the end of last year.

"The Web portal has been designed specifically with the workflow needs of a state coordinator in mind," Dixon said. "It allows these people who are first on the scene to respond quickly. And the technology also works well with existing alert systems."

One of the primary benefits of using the Amber Alert portal is that it provides a consistent platform for every state to use, Dixon added. Every state could develop its own interface method for accessing the national alert system, but that would be costly and time-consuming. It would also create a complicated web of local alert systems, because every state would have a proprietary system.

"The Amber Alert portal took 15 years to develop," he said. "And it works. It also provides a common platform with common source code that will make adding new features nationwide much easier."