Seven years ago, nine-year old Amber Hagerman was out riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, when she was abducted and killed. Despite a concerted police effort to alert the public through TV and radio broadcast appeals for information, and an extensive search, Amber was found dead after four days.
Although the case has gone unsolved, it was the inspiration for the Amber Alert System, which seeks instant help from the public when a child is thought to be missing and in danger. Since launching, it is credited with having saved the lives of 37 children in the US.
In September last year, Sussex Police Detective Chief Inspector Jeremy Paine looked at the US scheme with a view to introducing it in the UK.
Earlier this month, Sussex Police became the first police force in Europe to use a scheme based on the US model, called Child Rescue Alert (CRA), to seek public assistance when a child has been abducted.
The scheme uses local media to get word out to the public when an abduction has taken place, so that they can be on the alert for the child, the abductor, or any vehicle used in the abduction, and then report it to police.
Key to the system is the ability to get the message out immediately, which involves interrupting TV and radio broadcasts.
To gain maximum positive publicity for the scheme and ensure the identity for CRA was easily recognised. To assist the project manager in achieving agreement with relevant broadcast media in Sussex and manage a launch event with facilities for both news and documentary media. To promote Sussex Police as the first force in Europe to adopt such a scheme.
Strategy and Plan
From initial discussions with local media, the PR team knew that as the scheme was the latest drive to recover children thought to be missing and in danger, it would be extremely newsworthy.
The primary concern, however, was to build awareness of the scheme among media partners in the Sussex area - how it would work and what each media partner would have to do should such an alert be sent. The local media, in this instance, would almost become an extension of the emergency services.
The scheme works by designated police personnel notifying local broadcast media by text and email that a CRA has been launched. The email gives the media the precise words to be used in their subsequent broadcast, which would then interrupt normal programming.
The launch took place at Brighton Racecourse on 14 November 2002, and a video news release of a reconstruction - with scheme endorsements to camera from TV presenters Trevor McDonald and Fiona Bruce - was distributed to create awareness.
The first real test for the scheme came seven months later, when six-year-old Summer Haipule went missing on 7 July. Sussex police alerted TV and radio stations that had agreed to participate in the CRA scheme.
Local TV used a ticker announcement of Summer's disappearance across the screen.
She was discovered the next day only four doors away at a neighbour's house, unharmed, having apparently fallen asleep while playing a game of hide and seek.
Measurement and Evaluation
On launch day, despite the start of the national fire strike on the same day, broadcast coverage included five mentions throughout BBC Breakfast, then again on the One O'clock News and Six O'clock News. On ITV, GMTV mentioned it twice, as well as it being picked up by ITN Lunchtime News and ITN Early Evening News. Channel 4 News and five News picked up the story, and Sky News's Sunrise gave it two mentions, with a further story on its lunchtime News On the Hour show.
Eight camera crews attended the launch, along with national press and agencies, local and national radio stations and three documentary crews.
It was noted in some press coverage, particularly in The Guardian (9 July), that glitches caused concern over the system's effectiveness, highlighting that news of Summer's disappearance didn't make it to TV screens until almost three hours after she went missing.
This caused embarrassment to the PR department, something the Sussex Police felt to an even greater degree when the text messaging system failed because the force had not renewed a contract with its service provider.
'There were some glitches, so the organisation needs to review how we do it next time,' admitted Sussex Police PR manager Duncan Adams.
Ideally, text messages are sent to journalists telling them to read an email that contains all the details to be broadcast when a CRA is activated, within two hours. But due to problems with the texting system, this did not happen.
The BBC broadcast its first alerts across BBC Radios Solent, Kent, Oxfordshire and Southern Counties, followed by messages on BBC 1 and 2, which were on screen before 11pm. This was then extended to BBC News 24.
Southern FM head of news Laurence King was called at home because of glitches in the text system.
'It didn't work as smoothly as it should have done,' said King. 'We should have been on air with the alert at 9pm. The first one went out just before 11pm.'
BBC South and South East regions head of regional programmes Eve Turner, said: 'My text message arrived at 10.20pm and I immediately set off from home back to Broadcasting House in Southampton.'
An Association of Chief Police Officers spokesperson confirmed: 'The system will be rolled out nationally and we are encouraging forces around the UK to take it on.'