California's first mobile Amber Alert shocks strangers

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on August 6, 2013

From The News Desk

Last night, I was sitting on the 22 bus on the way home from work. It was late at night -- 11 pm or so -- and decorative lights twinkled in the trees passing by. The mood on the bus was calm and sleepy. A couple cuddled in the corner, and boys with bleached fauxhawks sat slumped in their seats.

Then, out of the blue a shrieking alarm pierced the air, shattering the silence. I was shocked and a little embarrassed to look down and see that my phone was the culprit, vibrating with a big bright message. Within moments though, I realized the shrieking was coming from all around me, and other commuters were also pulling out their phones as befuddled as I was.

It was California's very first mobile Amber Alert. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sends out Amber Alerts from cell towers in locations near the abduction. The alerts can pop up on new phones with Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) capabilities, or phones that get the corresponding software update. It's a voluntary system, and participating wireless companies were required to add WEA services to their phones by April 7, 2012.

California's Amber Alert system was activated for the first time since WEA rolled out nationally because authorities believe two siblings, 16-year-old Hannah Anderson and 8-year-old Ethan Anderson, were abducted from their home in San Diego by an alleged killer driving a four-door blue Nissan Versa.

It was strange to receive that first California Amber Alert on public transit. As people are wont to do in times of crisis, strangers turned to one another and started talking about it. We compared notes -- whose phone had gotten the alert and whose hadn't. Someone read the alert out loud to the people nearby who didn't receive it. Others started glancing out the window as though the blue Nissan from Southern California might pass us on the quiet Lower Haight street. It's possible, given that authorities believe the abductor is headed to Canada.

The LA Times later reported that Californians were angry and confused about the Amber Alert, scared by an alarming phone notification they didn't know they had. The reaction mirrors New Yorkers' response a few weeks ago, when the first New York City mobile Amber Alert woke people up at 4 in the morning. The missing 7-month-old boy was quickly found, and the event launched a discussion about whether WEAs impeded people's privacy.

When I got the alert, I wasn't angry -- I was sad. Despite the fact that we all received the Amber Alert at once, there was something strangely personal about it. It felt like someone appearing at my door, telling me their children were missing and could I help find them? After all, the notifications that come through my phone are usually tailored to me -- my apps telling me that my Lyft car has arrived or a room that meets my criteria has popped up on Craigslist. I might not have thought much of an Amber Alert on a highway sign or PSA from my radio. In contrast, the phone alert immediately got me wondering about the children taken, where they had come from, how their parents were feeling.

I searched from my phone and quickly found out. The children's mother's body was found in the burning rubble of a home, and authorities suspect she was killed by their abductor -- a man named James Lee DiMaggio. A rock settled to the pit of my stomach, and despite the fact that I knew DiMaggio was probably nowhere near San Francisco, I couldn't help but peek out the window every few minutes for signs of a blue car.

[Image via ABC 10News]