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Agents talk about the AMBER alert protocol in Tennessee

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is the clearinghouse for missing and exploited children in the state, working with local law enforcement and federal agencies to find them.

The TBI reserves the America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, or AMBER, alert for the most serious missing child cases. Activating one is serious business.

"We are only issuing about 5 or 6 a year," explained Margie Quin, Special Agent In Charge, "so we are very judicious when we activate."

A parent can not call and ask the TBI to issue an AMBER alert.

"We have to get that request from a local law enforcement agency," said Quin. "If we issue an AMBER alert, crime needs to have been committed. So we are working with that local agency to get information immediately. We're sending our field investigative unit out to... determine whether or not that child is in imminent danger."

Agents will weigh the age of the child, what the parents are saying in interviews, the circumstances in which the child went missing, and the last seen location in order to make that determination of whether or not to issue an AMBER alert.

It comes down to criteria. There are federal guidelines issued by the US Department of Justice, but Quin says each state ultimately chooses their own criteria.

In Tennessee, an AMBER alert can be issued if:

  1. The child is under 18 years of age
  2. Police fear the child is in imminent danger of bodily harm or death
  3. Authorities can provide a description of one of the following: the child, the vehicle involved, or the suspect

"If we issue an AMBER alert, crime needs to have been committed," summarized Quin.

Quin said sometimes, Tennessee is asked to issue an alert for an out-of-state child. But in order to do that, there needs to be a nexus to Tennessee.

"We have to guard against saturation, or over-saturation, on these types of alerts," she commented. "Otherwise, the public just stops listening to you."

AMBER alerts have spread quickly across the country with the help of social media. When they were first put into place, social media wasn't around. Quin acknowledges that social media can help.

But she noticed something that doesn't help so much.

"The younger the child, the more the public I think, pays attention," she noted. "The older the child, the less the public becomes engaged. Which is sad. Children are children."

She said when an uncle abducted Carlie Trent, 9, there were an abundance of tips.

"We crashed the phone system here twice," she said of the amount of calls to TBI. "The volume was just unbelievable."

But when Tad Cummins' 15-year-old victim went missing, Quin says they saw considerably less tips. She believes you should pay attention to all AMBER alerts.