Errors could weaken trust in Amber alerts

False warning message broadcast from Wasilla

Posted: Friday, February 05, 2010

ANCHORAGE - It was only a test.

An emergency communications center in Wasilla mistakenly activated an Amber Alert Wednesday, sending false warning messages to radio listeners and television viewers throughout the area.

Officials at the communications center said the error occurred during equipment training.

"A wrong button was pushed," spokesman Dan Stearns told KTUU-TV. "Instead of the weekly test, a button was pushed to activate the Amber Alert system, in error."

The accidental activation is the latest in what has become a string of false alarms. In October, police activated the system for a kidnapping that wasn't. In July, a fake Amber alert scam made its way around the state.

Police and others worry the false alarms might make people ignore future alerts.

"It may be similar to Chicken Little or the boy who cried wolf, that we start to become insensitive or numb to them," said Bruno Kappes, a forensic psychologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Stearns pointed out that Wednesday's mistake was the first false alarm at the Wasilla agency. He agreed about the importance of keeping errors to a minimum.

All 50 states use the Amber Alert system to help find missing children. It's named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, a Texas girl kidnapped and murdered in 1996.

Amber Alert activations, however, are still relatively new to Alaska, and Kappes said the state is still getting familiar with the system.

"It's no different than putting an alarm in your home, where you're trying to set it up and you accidentally set it off a few times until you're familiar with (it)," he said.

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