What Is an Amber Alert? How Child Abduction Messages Work

Messages announcing an "Amber Alert" are issued by local authorities to help locate a child who has been abducted.

One of the most recent alerts that went out was on Friday for a child abduction in Tennessee, issued by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

But what do these alerts mean and how do they work? Newsweek explains below.

What Is an Amber Alert?

An Amber Alert is an emergency message issued when "a law enforcement agency determines that a child has been abducted" and is in "imminent danger," the Department of Justice (DOJ) explains. The "AMBER" stands for "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response."

The DOJ recommended the following guidelines for law enforcement agencies to determine whether a child case meets the Amber Alert criteria, as outlined in the 2020 AMBER Alert Report by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children:

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement an abduction has occurred.
  • The abduction is of a child age 17 or younger.
  • The law enforcement agency believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and abduction for law enforcement to issue an Amber Alert to assist in the recovery of the child.
  • The child's name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

How Do Amber Alerts Work?

These alerts are broadcast via radio and television as well as through road signs, cell phones and other data-enabled devices.

The alert "instantly galvanizes" communities to help search for and safely recover an abducted child.

The Amber Alert system is used in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., Indian country, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and 33 other countries, according to the DOJ.

As of November 24, 2021, a total of 1,085 children have been recovered through the Amber Alert system, while 97 children have been rescued through the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the department says.

Launched in 2012, WEA is a public safety system that allows mobile devices to receive "geographically targeted, text-like messages" alerting them of "imminent threats to safety" in their area, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) explains.

Since its launch, the WEA system has been used over 61,000 times to warn people about critical situations, such as missing children, according to the FCC.

How Did Amber Alerts Begin?

The Amber Alert system started in 1996 when broadcasters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area joined forces with local police to develop "an early warning system" to help find children who had been abducted.

The system was created as a legacy to nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and then "brutally murdered," according to the department.

Soon after, other states and communities established their own "AMBER plans," as the idea was adopted across the country. There are currently 86 Amber plans throughout the U.S., as of November 24, 2021, the DOJ says.

Amber Alert sign in California.
An Amber Alert "CHILD ABDUCTION" sign on a freeway in Orange, California, seen in October, 2002, giving a description of a vehicle suspected of being used in the kidnapping. David McNew/Getty Images