SAN JOSE -- When 11-month-old Gabriella Quintero was found safe Monday after someone took off with the car she was in, a nervous city breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But people are still talking about the volume of calls and alerts local residents received after Gabriella disappeared. Landlines rang off the hook, and hundreds of thousands of cellphones buzzed, blared and popped up messages -- seemingly on their own -- as part of a brand-new national system.
Part of that call blast -- involving landline phones -- came via "Alert SCC," a five-year-old county program likened to a "reverse 911" that sends an automated call to pretty much everything on the traditional phone grid. Similar systems exist in other Bay Area counties.
The new element was the deployment of the Wireless Emergency Alerts program, a federal-level program that went into effect at the beginning of the year that can be used during a variety of emergencies, not just for missing children at risk.
The alerts were sent out to cellphones with WEA capability built in. But many consumers weren't aware of the new alert system, leading to surprises when their phones started vibrating and emitting unfamiliar emergency tones to draw attention to the Amber Alert that authorities issued for the missing Gabriella.
Reactions to the unfamiliar alerts were wide-ranging, from annoyance to compliments.
"I have to give a big kudos to the entire emergency response team for the 3 text messages and 2 emails I received on this (Monday) in just a matter of a few hours," resident Jennifer Nelson wrote on the San Jose Police Department's Facebook page.
There were also complaints from those who didn't get them. Older phones cannot be retroactively updated, and even some newer smartphones didn't receive the alerts, which can be attributed in part to issues within cellphone companies.
Under the previous Wireless Amber Alert system, users had to subscribe to receive text messages notifying them of children suspected of having been recently abducted.
The architects of the new system say it allows for more precise targeting of notifications. Instead of relying on voluntary subscribers, the system uses local cell towers to send alerts to any WEA-enabled phone in the targeted area regardless of whether a user's cellphone service is based there. That way local residents with out-of-town area codes and visitors in an affected area will be notified. It also means that when you go out of town, you won't get alerts from back home.
The system is opt-out: cellphone users -- depending on the service carrier -- can adjust which alerts they get through their phone settings. Besides the Amber Alert, there are "imminent threat" alerts, covering events like natural disasters, and "presidential" alerts concerning matters of national security or concern. Users cannot opt out of the presidential alerts.
Alert SCC, a parallel county program, automatically sends calls to landline phones but residents can also subscribe to email, text and cellphone call alerts for local emergencies. A similar program exists in Contra Costa County, and opt-in, electronic alert systems are in place in Alameda and San Mateo counties.
The San Jose abduction spurred the second Amber Alert issued in the Bay Area this year. An Amber Alert was broadcast in Oakland in February along with the WEA notifications, though the case turned out to be a hoax.
Gabriella's kidnapping was reported at 6:43 a.m. Monday -- after someone jumped in the white Jeep Liberty idling in an East San Jose driveway with her still inside -- and police moved rapidly to confirm the abduction and get the word out.
Once a high-ranking supervisor was satisfied that Amber Alert criteria were met -- child victim, imminent danger and specific vehicle information like a license plate number -- police contacted the CHP in Sacramento and its 24-hour Emergency Notification and Tactical Alert Center. Concurrently, the Department of Homeland Security was notified, and the WEA alert was then issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In addition to complaints by cellphone users who didn't get the alerts, some residents bemoaned how long it took for the alerts to get out -- by some estimates, about two hours after the kidnapping was first reported.
Officer Albert Morales, spokesman for the San Jose Police Department, said investigators have to be thorough and methodical about confirming information before alerting an entire region. Still, Morales said the police department got mostly positive feedback from residents experiencing their first run through the new alert system.
"Talking to dispatchers, it seemed very effective" in procuring tips in the case, he said. By late Monday morning, Gabriella was found safe and sound across town in her mom's SUV. The suspect had ditched the car and remains at large.
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.