Finding missing children faster

      When someone is missing, it can be time consuming to obtain a picture and get it out to the news media and the public. Sometimes several hours go by before an alert is issued. Titan Lynx Corp. designed the StreetLynx Network to change that. StreetLynx is based on specific geographic information and will let thousands of people, including law enforcement, receive missing person alerts on their cell phones almost immediately. (Law enforcement also will be able to receive alerts on their MDTs.) The network was introduced this year by Titan Lynx Corp. and the Fraternal Order of Police.

   Thanks to the support of the FOP, KnightLine Apparel and other corporate sponsors, there is no cost for departments to use StreetLynx. Titan Lynx doesn't charge for sending alerts, nor is there a charge to register to receive alerts. However, messaging fees from wireless carriers may apply.

   "As law enforcement officials, we can take a photo and get that photo out to the public in minutes so that the ability to recover a child is greatly enhanced," says Chuck Canterbury, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police. "The biggest enemy of a missing child is time; a swift response is crucial and critical to law enforcement being able to recover [missing] children."

   The StreetLynx Network is not intended to replace the U.S. Department of Justice-administered AMBER Alert program, which is a voluntary partnership between law enforcement agencies, media outlets and transportation agencies to activate an urgent bulletin in serious child abduction cases. Since the program's 1997 inception, AMBER Alerts have been credited with the successful recovery of more than 400 children.

   When Titan Lynx CEO Michael Rubinic started developing StreetLynx, law enforcement had limited options if a child was reported missing. Issuing an AMBER Alert is the most effective way to get the word out to the public, he says, however, there are strict criteria that must be met before the alert can be released.

   In creating the StreetLynx service, Rubinic wanted to offer law enforcement another option. In 2007, he points out that nearly 800,000 children were reported missing, according to the Department of Justice; but only about 225 AMBER Alerts were issued that same year. Because AMBER Alerts are far-reaching public alerts, he says it makes sense that the criteria includes reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred. However, StreetLynx will utilize a different set of criteria. Alerts from StreetLynx will be initiated at the discretion of local law enforcement through the StreetLynx Network, available from Titan Lynx.

   At this time, alerts are not being issued, as the database of participating agencies is in development. Alerts to law enforcement are expected to start in early 2010. Currently the StreetLynx Network project is in Phase 2, efforts for messages broadcast to the general public remain ongoing. Titan Lynx and the FOP are working together to promote the PhotoAlert Drive that allows for the gathering of photos and individual profiles by parents and guardians so that they can be accessed for quick dissemination. The photos and profiles will be stored on a portable flash drive by parents or guardians so that the information remains confidential until it is needed for distribution via text message, picture message or e-mail in an emergency.

   In an emergency, if those who signed up to receive alerts have a cell phone that cannot receive picture messages, it will still receive the text message containing the profile. If a phone cannot receive text messages but can receive e-mails, the e-mails will include the picture. Due to steady advancements in technology, Rubinic anticipates all cell phones soon will include picture messaging as a standard feature. Photographs and profile information of missing persons will also be posted on the StreetLynx Web site.

Targeted alerts

   Although StreetLynx will be able to notify entire regions, Rubinic says it is designed to identify a specific area by creating a targeted zone based on the last known location of the missing person.

   For example, if a toddler has just wandered off, likely there's no need to send an alert out 90 miles. An alert only needs to be sent out at two, three or five miles maximum. But if a teenager who habitually runs away is missing, it may be necessary to send an alert out 90 miles. If abduction is suspected, an alert will be sent out as far as needed. Generally the rule is for every minute a child is missing, the alert will be sent out another mile.

   Law enforcement StreetLynx recipients receive alerts based on their police department's address. Others receive alerts based on their home address.

   Rubinic gives an example of what would happen if a child were reported missing in Anytown, Anystate. There are two ways the StreetLynx Network will work: If a parent or guardian possesses a PhotoAlert Drive, the police department could access the child's photograph and profile information, which includes relevant biographical information such as name, height, weight, age, etc., and where he or she was last seen. Immediately a broadcast message is sent to law enforcement officers in the area. In the future, the general public would receive the same message in the city and surrounding communities.

   If a parent or guardian does not possess a PhotoAlert Drive, he or she will first need to locate a photograph and create a profile. The information can then be loaded into the StreetLynx Network before distribution.

   "Police are in the business of getting alerts and keeping their eyes open for missing persons. The danger of over-using an alert system is that the public will begin to ignore them and they will become worthless," Rubinic says. "But you can send multiple PhotoAlerts because you're only including a very specific geographic area in your alert."

How it works

   No special hardware or software is required to use StreetLynx. Connections will be made via the Internet through secure socket layering. Communications are encrypted.

   To issue alerts, agencies must subscribe to StreetLynx, which includes the National PhotoAlert Network (an open network) as well as a closed network for law enforcement, to share digital images and identifying information about persons of interest or suspects. An agency would have the capability of sending photos (a mugshot, surveillance image or sketch) to whomever is on the closed law enforcement network. StreetLynx will send a message that needs to be communicated to all officers immediately. If an image must be sent from StreetLynx to the public, StreetLynx can be linked to the National PhotoAlert Network to make this happen.

   To issue an alert, law enforcement agencies will need a user ID and password to log in, and can access the network from any computer connected to the Internet. If a child is reported missing, the agency uploads a photograph from a PhotoAlert Drive or obtains one from a parent or guardian.

   StreetLynx then walks users through the entire distribution process: asking to whom (law enforcement or the public) the alert should be distributed, how far and so forth. (When Rubinic test-marketed the data entry function, he says officers were able to learn how to use the Windows-based program in less than 15 minutes.)

   The issuing agency determines how far the missing person or person of interest may have traveled and enters the distance in miles. An alert with a picture and relevant information is then created and sent to all law enforcement agencies and registered recipients within that zone. When a child is successfully recovered, a message is sent informing the alert recipients and is also posted on the StreetLynx Web site. There is no limit to the number of alerts an agency can issue.

A service to the community

   An FOP Lodge 21 in Lima, Ohio, obtained StreetLynx licenses for the Lima Police Department and the Allen County Sheriff's Office.

   "We looked at the StreetLynx service and felt it was a very useful tool [in] the recovery of missing children," says Mike Watkins, FOP Lodge 21 president. "We also envision using it to help locate older adults suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's."

   "Whether it's a child who has wandered off or a teen who has run away, the worst thing in a parent's life is not knowing where their child is. If it works the way it's envisioned, instead of 10 or 15 pairs of eyes in a small community looking for someone, you potentially have hundreds of pairs of eyes out there looking."

   Trying to locate a missing child can be frustrating, he says. When Watkins, a retired juvenile officer, would get a report of a missing child, the description would often be too generic. "A toddler, 3 or 4 years old, blond hair, blue eyes, wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt, 3 feet 8 inches," he says. "A lot of kids in Lima fit that description."

   Lima Police Chief J. Gregory Garlock says the ability to send a photo and description of a missing person by cell phone is a classic example of merging law enforcement needs with technology.

   "Our ability to get a picture out into the public and to every officer on the street will be phenomenal," Garlock says.

   Watkins encourages "every village, city and county employee to sign up; as well as people who are out and about all the time like postal workers and people who work in convenience stores and gas stations."

   "They see hundreds of people every day," says Watkins. "If they get this alert, that greatly increases the chances of finding someone."

   If someone gets an alert at work, he or she might be able to spot a missing child on the way home. Or someone shopping downtown might notice a child in a car and receive an alert minutes later. This could help narrow down where the child was last seen and what kind of vehicle the child is in.

Nationwide alerts

   The StreetLynx project is near and dear to Rubinic's heart.

   Titan Lynx has invested nearly $1.2 million into the development of the StreetLynx Network and the PhotoAlert Drive project. In the future, Rubinic expects the StreetLynx Network and PhotoAlert Drive will be able to broadcast video as well.

   The success of StreetLynx will be in its speed in delivering an image of a person missing. With a photo stored on a PhotoAlert Drive, an alert can be sent out in minutes. Because recipients will be sent a photo, they can visualize a child quicker than they might with only a text description.

   "The chances of finding a missing person go up dramatically if you have a face to put with the name or description," Rubinic says, noting that a portable image on a cell phone or PDA is more convenient than an image on a missing persons poster.

   Together, he says, "Titan Lynx, law enforcement and our communities can make this happen."

   Editor's note: More information on AMBER Alerts can be found at www.wirelessamberalerts.org.

   Rebecca Kanable has been writing about law enforcement issues for approximately 10 years. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

A plan for success

   In order for StreetLynx to be successful:

  • Law enforcement agencies must subscribe to StreetLynx. Titan Lynx Corp. would like to see at least 1,000 agencies sign up per month. At that rate, a nationwide network could be built in about three years.
  • Community members must sign up to receive alerts in Phase 2.
  • Families need to electronically store information regarding their children, and, if applicable, their parents in a format that can be easily accessed, such as the PhotoAlert Drive.

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