Sunday, 28 July 2019

Addressing the alarm over amber alerts

Ontario residents with cell phones were recently roused at 3 am by the pulsating sound of an Amber Alert, initiated by police in response to the abduction of a young child in Brantford, a small city east of Hamilton. It wasn’t the first time, and as with previous middle-of-the-night alerts, the alarm triggered an avalanche of complaints from irate citizens whose sleep was interrupted, which in turn provoked a barrage of counter-accusations of selfishness from both police and supporters of the system.

In truth, both sides are right, and both are wrong.

Amber Alerts are designed to impede child abductions and facilitate the recovery of abducted children, and they have done so. Not in every case, mind you, but the few times that they have translates into a high rate of success given the relative rareness of such alerts. They are an effective and efficient way of enlisting the public’s help in safeguarding our children.

That said, the critics have a point. What is the use in waking people up at 3 am to inform them of an abduction that took place an hour earlier, hundreds of kilometres or more away? This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Indeed, why wake anybody up at all? Amber Alerts are always accompanied by a text message displaying their details that stays on the home screen of smart phones until deleted.

Of course, people who call 911 to gripe about being awoken are fools. By all means, protest, but have the sense to obtain and dial the proper phone number, a simple enough task using a smart phone.

Those who insist on using 911 to register a complaint about an Amber Alert deserve much of the opprobrium directed toward them. Instead of focusing on misuse of the 911 system though, too many defenders of the middle-of-the-night Amber Alert – including, regrettably, the police – prefer to impugn the character and motivation of critics, a tactic sure to incite even more antagonism toward a system that, administered sensibly, works.

What to do? Here are my suggestions:

First, to those who resent being woken up in the middle of the night, stop calling 911 to register your complaint, and for pity’s sake, try to refrain from using social media platforms to publicly proclaim your lack of concern for the welfare of the children who are the subject of the offending alert. You have the right to your opinion, but please, have the decency to spare the rest of us the perverse pleasure you take in such faux wit. It makes us cringe.

Second, to those who are irritated by the criticism, a healthy dose of humility is in order. Th truth is that most  of the criticism precipitated by these alerts is legitimate. Condemning critics as nothing more than self-centred bellyachers – or worse – is counterproductive. It damages the credibility of both the system and its proponents. And imposing fines on those who do use 911 to vent their anger may be appropriate, but it hardly addresses the underlying problem.

Finally, for those who would like to make the program even more effective, eliminate the ear-piercing klaxon and simply send out a text message in the format currently in use. After all, what’s the difference between that and advising people to leave their phones in another room overnight or turn them off altogether? Nixing the alarm won’t stop those who are out and about from receiving the alert immediately upon its dissemination, and the message will still be there in the morning for people to read with their coffee when they are capable of processing the information and, more importantly, actually doing something with it.


  1. Finally, a balanced and moderate assessment of the functionality of broadcasting amber alerts to cell phones. Thank you.

    1. Joseph Ben-AmiMonday, July 29, 2019

      Thank you for your kind words.