I got my first taste of an Amber Alert last night. (An Amber Alert is a special police bulletin that is released when children are abducted and the police have an early lead and enough descriptive information to give a good chance of finding them.) It was Massachusetts’ first Amber Alert and here’s what happened: The emergency broadcast notice and sound popped up on the screen, blanking out the whol signal, declaring a civil emergency. My first thought was “Terrorist attack!” Then they announced the Amber alert, went through the whole description, and I thought we would go back to the Patriots game. But we didn’t.
For a half hour, this 30 second alert repeated over and over. And it was on every channel. This wasn’t a simple screen crawl like you get when there’s a weather alert, but a complete blanking out of the every cable channel. So I did what most people probably did—I turned off the TV.
Now, I have a couple of problems. Yes, I think Amber Alert is a good thing, but why can’t they do a screen crawl on every station like they do for severe weather emergencies? Why repeat the message 60 times? Was it necessary in this case? It turns out that the kids were abducted by Mom. According to the Amber Alert criteria, the alert is not supposed to be used for domestic dispute or custody cases.
My main problem is not that my TV watching was disrupted, but that a jackhammer was used when a ball-peen hammer was indicated. By using a system that should only be used the most dire emergencies—the emergency broadcast system—but for a case that turns out not to be dire, you lessen its impact in real emergencies. And the way it was used—complete shutdown of the broadcast network for 30 minutes—ensures that some people will not look kindly on the system and will ignore it in the future.