Woken Up by an Amber Alert on Your Phone? Here's Why You're Getting Them

Sure, you've heard of a missing child Amber Alert, but have you ever experienced one? Here's what you need to know

Last night, cell-phone users in the New York City-area got a rude awakening at around 4am when a very loud, end-of-days-style alert came over their cell phone. Folks moaned on Twitter that they thought the city was under attack or in the midst of a nuclear meltdown, but the alarm was in fact an Amber Alert for 7-month-old Mario Danner, who had been abducted by his bipolar and reportedly violent mother, who does not have custody of the child, according to NBC New York News. The loss of sleep turned out to be worth it: The brown-eyed, adorably chubby-cheeked Danner was found mid-day Wednesday and is reportedly fine, according to NBC. The mother is in custody.

In addition to the loss of shut-eye, the experience left many with a  lot of questions about how and why they got this alert. Here's what you need to know about Amber Alerts to help keep your kids -- and all kids -- safe. 

When does an Amber Alert go out?
The AMBER Alert plan was created in 1996 after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped while riding her bike and murdered. When a child is reported missing, certain criteria must be in place before an Amber Alert can be issued, according to AmberAlert.gov. First, law enforcement must confirm a kidnapping has taken place, and that the child is 17 or under. The child must be at risk for serious injury or death, and there must be sufficient descriptive information on the child, captor or the captor’s vehicle.

Why is it so loud and scary?
This is definitely not a gentle text message ping. Your phone probably vibrated and made a loud noise, and then the alert took over your screen. This is by design, though, like the un-ignorable weather advisories that take over your TV screen, says Technical Sergeant John E, La Plante of the New York State Police. If you’d thought it was a run-of-the-mill text, you’d probably just have rolled over and gone back to sleep, right?

Why was it sent out in the middle of the night?
When a child is kidnapped, time is of the essence. In this case, according to a statement from the Public Information Office of the New York State Police, information about a vehicle the child could be in wasn’t obtained until the wee hours, holding up the Amber Alert. It’s important to get the word out ASAP, even in the middle of the night. “When a child under the age of 18 has been abducted and is in imminent danger of death or serious harm, immediacy can help save lives,” according to the statement.

How do they know my number?
Amber Alerts have been used since 2002, but New York only became part of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System, which includes almost all area cell phone users, on December 31, 2012. The system also alerts users about weather events like a tornado or a major security threat. Most cell phone users do not know their phone even has this feature; all cell phones are expected to be WEA capable some time this year, according to the New York State Police. You can find out if your carrier participates now through CTIA: The Wireless Association.

Do they work?
Yes! Amber Alerts have helped law enforcement rescue at least 653 kids. Sometimes an abductor will simply release the child after hearing an Amber Alert on the radio.

Can you turn them off?
Yes, you can opt out of the alert, but you should think long and hard before you do. “People have to make their own decision, but the more people that know about it, the more effective the system is,” says La Plante. “The point is to get as many people involved in the investigation as possible.” Isn’t being woken up every once in a while worth it?

What if I still want to disable the alert?
If you have an iPhone, you can go to settings > notifications and then scroll down to government alerts and opt out, according to Gothamist. On an Android, it depends on your model, but you can usually disable it using the text message setting. And then good luck sleeping at night.

Mom of two Sasha Emmons is a writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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