Just before 11 p.m. Monday, an emergency alert sounded on mobile devices alerting Californians that an Amber Alert had been issued and that authorities were looking for a blue four-door Nissan Versa with California license plate number 6WCU986.
The alert was for Hannah Anderson, 16, and her brother, 8-year-old Ethan Anderson, who were reported missing Monday night. The previous day, their mother was found dead inside the burned home of 40-year-old James Lee DiMaggio in the San Diego County community of Boulevard.
DiMaggio was suspected of kidnapping the children, and authorities say he may be headed to Texas or Canada in the Nissan.
The Amber Alerts to cellphones were sent out as part of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which was rolled out nationwide at the start of this year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The alerts are designed to inform people of emergencies, including extreme weather or natural disasters. They are received by certain newer cellphones that have the built-in capability to receive them.
The alert, which looks like a text message, is short with basic information about the incident and instructions for any followup action to take. The message causes a special tone and vibration in the phone that is receiving it.
This reporter received a number of alerts which sounded a loud buzzing sound much like those on TV when emergency alert tests are conducted, blocking out current broadcasts. Coming as they did while driving, the iPhone alert was startling with no way legally of picking up the phone before pulling out of traffic and stopping. It was making such loud, repeated noises, it seemed like the phone had gone into "nuclear attack mode."
The concern is that the annoying sound and seemingly random message (the text alert had no background on the kidnapping or the missing children) will discourage people from paying attention to the notification system or even using it. In fact the word quickly went out on social media advising cellphone owners how to "opt out" by changing the settings on their phones.