Does Hong Kong need US-style Amber alerts for missing children?

By Tacye Hong, University of Cambridge

Emergency information could be circulated quickly via text, TV and radio in our tech-savvy city

By Tacye Hong, University of Cambridge |

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Hong Kong needs a system of phone alerts for public incidents.

Amber (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) alerts are sent to the public via text messages and TV and radio announcements in the event of a child abduction. Such alerts usually include descriptions of the victim and the suspect, as well as any other information – such as the description of any vehicle used – that might help the public identify the child. Similar systems are also used in Canada, Europe, and many other places.

Last month, the Amber alert system was used in the Canadian province of Ontario when an 11-year-old girl went missing. She was out with her father for a “birthday treat” and he was supposed to drop her off at her mother’s place at 6.30pm. When the girl failed to show up, the mother called the police. She told officers that she had received comments from the father about harming himself and his daughter.

Around 11pm, the police sent out an alert to the public, followed by a second one around midnight, which said that the girl had been found dead.

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Surprisingly, many Canadians tweeted their annoyance about being woken up by the alert, while more than 300 people dialled 911 to complain about the late hour the alert was sent. It is really disturbing that Canadians, who are often referred to as the friendliest people in the world, could be so selfish.

What’s more, the inconvenience of losing some sleep or the brief interruption of a TV programme is nothing compared to the loss of a life.

While it is understandable that people who were in bed would likely not have any information, the police could only do their best and reach out to every possible person. Even though they could not save the girl, the police were able to find the father thanks to tips provided by the public. The 41-year-old man was taken into custody and will be charged with first-degree murder in relation to the girl’s death.

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I think the use of Amber alerts is necessary and justified.

Should more countries and cities, such as Hong Kong, use such a system? Given that Hong Kong is such a small city and is so overcrowded, it should be very effective. However, since the Hong Kong government likes to overcomplicate matters (take, for example, the HK$4,000 Caring and Sharing scheme), the cost may be too high. Also, child abduction does not seem to be a big problem in the city.

But if Hong Kong were to use the alert, it would have to come up with a new name. The Amber rainstorm signal is issued by the Hong Kong Observatory to indicate that “heavy rain has fallen or is expected to fall generally over Hong Kong, exceeding 30 millimetres in an hour, and is likely to continue”. This, obviously, has nothing to do with child abduction.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne