We were still outside, surrounded by children, when the helicopters appeared. Kids were playing “Knock Out” on the basketball court, hurling that second basketball at the hoop, trying to beat the first through the net. A few kids on scooters described lazy loops on the deeper yard, curving from the track lines across the kickball outfield towards the giant floor map of the United States. A lone unicycler puffed along the kindergarten building, weaving in and out of the empty tether ball poles and then rolling past me. I stood talking in a small huddle of kids and parents.

There was a helicopter somewhere in the distance. I assumed it was over the nearby 580 freeway, covering the latest mash up (I had heard something on the radio about a truck and a horse trailer and I was still hoping the horses were OK). Another helicopter appeared now, cutting across the sky above us, away from the bay, pointed towards the hills, the Mormon Temple. It turned and followed the street down the next hill and looped back over Loard’s Ice Cream.

There was a voice on a loudspeaker now somewhere. It could be the school’s PA because I was standing right by the building, and this was somewhere farther away. I couldn’t hear what it was saying because of the helicopter and the kids shouting on the yard and the people talking near me. It was a little freckle faced girl who voiced the thought forming in my head: “Is that coming from the helicopter?”

More people began to listen. Something about “call 9-1-1” something about a red SUV. I began to eye the exits to the yard, the metal gates, the street above the yard. Should we be on lockdown? Was a crazed shooter roaming the neighborhood?

Suddenly a strange alarm sounded and the freckle faced girl’s mom reached down, as if a sudden shooting pain had hit her. She pulled out her iPhone, looked at it and said, “Amber Alert. There’s been a kidnapping.”

The helicopter circled back now, chopped its way across our sky again. Now, because I knew to listen, I heard the words “Amber Alert.” Is announcing something from a helicopter really an effective way to communicate? Helicopters are loud and this sound system was not pumping. Talk about a choppy connection. Couldn’t they fly an amber flag? Wait, what color is amber again? One thing is for sure, helicopter announcements are a great way to freak out the neighbors. Something bad has happened, so let’s go distribute fear throughout the city. Obviously, the idea is to get information out there as quickly as possible to try to nab the red SUV, but I don’t helicopter announcements are quite the way to go.

The phone thing is interesting. My little museum-quality phone with slide-out texting keyboard did not so much as vibrate. I looked at it. It looked up at me, shrugged. So who got alerted? According to that stalwart of journalism, Yahoo News, it’s all about the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). “Most smartphones and some tablets sold in the past two years — roughly 320 million currently active devices — can now receive the location-based alerts, which are transmitted on an exclusive frequency not subject to traffic delays.” (http://news.yahoo.com/how-and-why-the-government-is-sending-emergency-alerts-to-your-smartphone-211346691.html)

The idea comes from a good place. What if every time there was a crime in your neighborhood, just the people in that neighborhood got a little heads-up and could help nab the criminal? “Look for a white Ford Bronco with these plates…” You see it, you send in the info. They catch the guy.

But then what if you were getting alerts like these every day? Wouldn’t your quality of life drop, living with that kind of fear or even just awareness? Personally, I can’t keep checking those neighborhood listservs for that reason. We all tell stories about our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lives. What sort of stories do we want to tell the most?

The Amber Alert, by the way, turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. Early reports had a man with a knife running from a Safeway and leaping into a car with a man and a 13-year-old girl, ordering them to drive away. Later, it turned out they all knew each other and that the 13-year-old was actually a woman. The only thing that got abducted was some steak and lobster from Safeway. My favorite reader’s comment on the online report I read was, “Wait, they have lobster at Safeway?”

So, before the choppers fill the sky again, ask yourselves, good citizens, how alert do you want to be? What are you willing to give up to protect your local lobster? And, when all is said and done, what constitutes Too Much Information?

 

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