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A child abduction alert transmitted to cellphones across the state jolted North Coast residents from their sleep, lit up darkened rooms from bedside tables and befuddled some with its brief missive about a case from Boulevard, an obscure town in San Diego County.

Monday's Amber Alert message was the first sent statewide with new wireless technology automatically enabled on some phone models.

But it came as a surprise to many that a national system exists that can chime alerts on any capable smartphone without a person opting in.

"If they can do that, then what else can they do?" said Steve Pedersen, 62, of Monte Rio. "I was at home; what was I going to do, exactly? Was I going to go on a search?"

The system is designed to enlist as many eyes as possible on the road to look for a suspect, a missing child or a vehicle sought by law enforcement authorities.

In the recent case, the San Diego County Sheriff's Office activated an alert for the blue Nissan Versa thought to be driven by a man suspected of killing a woman and kidnapping her two children.

The San Diego agency contacted the CHP, which then prompted a network of agencies to send alerts through multiple channels, such as media broadcasts, Caltrans highway signs and displays at gas station pumps.

The National Weather Service and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent the wireless message at 9:30 p.m., and it was received by phones at varying times, depending on the recipient's wireless carrier.

"We know there's power when you engage the public," said Stacy Garrett, spokeswoman with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Somebody has seen that child; somebody has seen that car."

The Amber Alert program was created in 1996 and is named for Amber Hagerman, 9, who was abducted and killed near her home in Texas.

The alerts for years have gone out through radio, TV and roadside signs, hundreds of which are positioned along California roadways.

The new Wireless Emergency Alert program has included Amber Alerts since January, replacing a prior text-based alert system in place since 2005.

The program is run by CTIA-The Wireless Association, an international group that represents the wireless industry, in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission.

Messages are sent directly from cell towers to any capable smartphone in the area. In the San Diego case, a person from out of state visiting California would have received the message, but a Californian traveling elsewhere would not.

The technology doesn't work on all smartphones and is typically available on newer models. The nationwide program automatically includes millions of cellphone users in three types of alerts: President, Imminent Threat and Amber Alerts.

People can turn off all notifications except for those from the president. Congress decided no consumer could opt out of presidential alerts with the passage of the WARN Act of 1996.

The new avenue for Amber Alerts first proved its value in February in a Minnesota case, Garrett said.

A teenager received an alert on her cellphone about a Kia Sportage used by the suspected abductor of an 8-month-old child. The teen saw the car parked across the street.

She told her father, they called 911, and the call led authorities to the child, she said.

Monday's message gave no details other than an alert for a blue Nissan Versa with license plate from Boulevard. The brevity of the message sent many on the North Coast searching for more information.

Mary McDaniel, who works at E&J Gallo Winery in Healdsburg, said the alert disappeared when she left the home screen of her phone, causing her to question the success of the system.

And an unfamiliar 10-second tone that rang from some phones had people checking carbon monoxide and fire detectors, such as Santa Rosa resident Jann Gobble, who called for her husband, grabbed the dog and ran to the door.

Gobble and Pedersen were among a slew of North Coast residents who said they were dissatisfied with the system and would turn the notifications off.

Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs with CTIA-The Wireless Association, said it's inevitable some people will opt out, but casting a wide net is essential to get the information out to a person who potentially might see something.

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found 46 percent of American adults now own a smartphone. The messages are designed to give a brief hit of information that might help a passerby react quickly to a sighting. Josef mentioned widely cited research that found the first three hours after an abduction are the most critical to recovery.

"We certainly have heard there is surprise when they receive that first alert," Josef said. "The alert tone, the vibration, the cadence, that's by design. It's to get people's attention."

Josef recounted a July 1 case in East Windsor, Conn., in which a camp director received an alert from the National Weather Service on a phone and moved 29 campers out of a sports dome just before a tornado destroyed the structure.

"I think the overwhelming response has been positive. You may have a few people who have those reactions and they are able to opt out," Josef said.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm heard the alert come over his phone late Monday but was not taken by surprise.

"I'm used to getting alerts in the middle of the night," Schwedhelm said.

The Santa Rosa Police Deportment used the Amber Alert system once prior to the new wireless program, and the system worked, he said.

Hours after a Santa Rosa man rammed an SUV into a business and took off with his three children on June 14, 2012, a Motel 6 patron saw the alert on TV, recognized the man and called police, Sgt. John Snetsinger said.

The inconvenience of a message is inconsequential compared to the chance that someone might see something valuable to a case, Schwedhelm said.

"I would encourage people to be active participants in the community," Schwedhelm said. "If it were your child, would you want people to pay attention, or would you want people to ignore it?"

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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