SIKESTON -- Tuesday marks National Amber Alert Awareness Day, and law enforcement and highway officials say some of the best help they receive is from the public.
"The public is a vital tool for effective law enforcement as far as when a crime has been committed," said Lt. Jim McNiell, commander of Missouri State Highway Patrol's Troop E Service Center in Sikeston.
Sgt. James McMillen, public information officer for Sikeston Department of Public Safety, agreed the public should pay attention to Amber Alerts when they are issued.
"We rely on the public's help. We have to have that help, and they could be instrumental in saving a life or getting a child back home," McMillen said.
The Amber Alert Plan was created in 1996 as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas. The Amber Alert Plan is a voluntary, cooperative partnership between law-enforcement agencies and broadcasters to activate an emergency bulletin to the public when a child has been abducted, and it is believed the child is in danger. Since it was created in 1996, the Amber Alert program is credited with the successful recovery of 432 children.
Under the Amber Alert Plan, area radio and television stations interrupt regular programming to air information about the missing child using the Emergency Alert System or EAS (formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System). That's also when the Missouri Department of Transportation's message boards come into play.
"The whole idea is in the event of a child abduction, we're trying to use others to get a greater chance of a safe return of the child or the quick apprehension of the suspect," McMillen said.
Law enforcement must meet certain criteria before issuing an Amber Alert, McMillen said.
"The person missing has to be under 17, and an officer has to have reasonable belief the person has been kidnapped as stated in Missouri State Statute. An officer has to believe the person is in serious danger or in danger of serious injury or death," McMillen said.
Often times law enforcement officials will conduct a preliminary investigation to eliminate alternative explanations for a child's disappearance, McMillen said.
When an Amber Alert is issued, Missouri Department of Transportation posts the information on 60 rural electronic message boards on Interstates 70, 44, 55, 29 and 35 and on U.S. Route 60. MoDOT traffic management centers in St. Louis and Kansas City also disseminate the information on their 82 boards in the urban areas when not in use for critical travel information. On Tuesday, the message boards will highlight Amber Alert Awareness Day.
"When a child is abducted, time is of the essence," said Missy Wilbers, traffic management and operations engineer and MoDOT liaison to the Missouri Highway Patrol on Amber Alerts. "Our message boards provide a direct and immediate way to get information about abducted children out to the public so they can be on the lookout."
According to a study by the University of Washington, 74 four percent of children that are kidnapped and later found murdered are killed within the first three hours after being taken.
MoDOT also has placed fliers in rest areas, welcome centers and MoDOT offices promoting the awareness day.
There are five MoDOT message boards in Southeast Missouri's Troop E from south of the Matthews junction to north of Fruitland.
"Those message boards and the Amber Alert system is more eyes on the roads to look for the target because once they observe what we're looking for, they can report to us," McNiell said, adding once someone sees something, they shouldn't take matter into their own hands.
Every Tuesday, the Missouri State Highway Patrol participates in a statewide test of Amber Alert equipment.
"That's something that we normally do at all nine troop headquarters (in the state) to make sure the system is up and running properly," McNiell said.
In July 2008, MoDOT and the Patrol broadened their efforts to find missing Missourians through a statewide poster campaign called Operation REST -- REcovering the loST. Under the initiative, posters spotlighting missing people are displayed at MoDOT's highway rest areas.
"More than 24 million people visit our rest areas each year, so they provide the perfect sites to distribute information about missing people," MoDOT Director Pete Rahn said. "Public information is crucial to solving missing persons cases. The more public viewing each poster gets, the better the chances of bringing someone home."