“Thankfully, we were prepared.”
On Nov. 25, 2020, the Navajo Nation AMBER Alert faced its first real test – and aced it. The AMBER Alert led to two young sisters being safely returned to their home in northwest New Mexico, and that left Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management Harlan Cleveland breathing yet another sigh of relief. Three years of intense planning, training, and testing for just such a day had paid off.
Prior to November 25, Cleveland and his team had practiced issuing the child recovery alert in a simulated lab environment. “We were wondering how it would go in real-time,” he shared. “Thankfully, we were prepared.”
Also thankful is the family of Jayda John, 7, and Jaylee Spencer, 14.
On Saturday, November 21, the girls were taken from their uncle’s home in Fort Defiance, New Mexico, without his knowledge or permission. His girlfriend, Kristy Marie Pinal, had taken his car, and his nieces, to visit her parents several hours away on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona; that is what Pinal told him when reached by cell phone. She also said she would return with the girls the next day.
But Sunday came and went, and Pinal was not responding to calls and voicemails. By Monday November 23, Jayda and Jaylee’s family reported them missing to the Navajo Nation Police Department in Window Rock, New Mexico.
In issuing a Missing and Endangered Persons Advisory, Cleveland and Deputy Emergency Management Director Lavina Willie-Nez worked with the Navajo Nation Public Information Officer (PIO) to create a flyer that could be shared far and wide – on social media and at well-traveled locations throughout the reservation. Reaction to the girls’ disappearance gained attention, but no leads, and by the next day, Navajo Nation Police Department investigators filed kidnapping charges against Pinal.
An AMBER Alert – the first for Cleveland’s team to independently issue – would be needed. And quickly. Although Cleveland and Willie-Nez were working in separate locations in different states that day, they got the job done. “The good thing about our system is that it’s cloud-based, which allows us to respond instantly, wherever we are.”
Communicating by cell phone, with open laptops at the ready, Cleveland and alert co-coordinator Willie-Nez confirmed the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) had the necessary information to push out the AMBER Alert to two states simultaneously. The AMBER Alert needed to go statewide in New Mexico and Arizona; the states in which Pinal and the girls were likely traveling.
With every minute holding the very lives of the missing girls in hand, Willie-Nez recalled her resolved mindset. “There’s no panicking in this line of work. We’re trained to get it done.”
After working with AMBER Alert Coordinators in New Mexico and Arizona to finalize alert elements, the AMBER Alert was activated, notifying citizens via their phones and other devices. “It was great to see how quickly the alert went out,” remarked Willie-Nez. Social media activity around the alert and case rose quickly as well.
Within 30 minutes, the girls were found safe, some 50 miles west of Window Rock, by a Navajo Nation public safety officer. Pinal was arrested and the girls were returned home to a greatly relieved family. The case remains under investigation.
In the debrief following the AMBER Alert, Cleveland and Willie-Nez identified a few small internal adjustments that could be made toward improved process efficacy with future alerts. In concluding their overall review of their AMBER Alert response and with having identified those process improvements, they feel good about their progress and readiness.
“We’re thankful to have budgeted for a system with all the bells and whistles, one that doesn’t leave us without add-on capabilities that we didn’t know we needed until we did,” Cleveland said.
While the Navajo Nation’s first AMBER Alert ended on a high note, the roots of their mass-notification system were born from a tragedy – the May 2016 abduction and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike.
The anguish over Ashlynne’s disappearance intensified after it was discovered that a series of miscommunications around jurisdictional issues had delayed the issuance of an AMBER Alert. In response, the Navajo Nation vowed never to let such a situation occur in the future. And Tribal Nations throughout the country realized that, like the Navajo Nation, they needed to enact their own comprehensive child recovery strategy.
Foundational to the heart of Tribal communities working to make that happen was the passage of the 2018 Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, championed by Ashlynne’s mother, Pamela Foster, and the late Arizona Senator John McCain. The Act gives Tribal Nations access to state AMBER Alert plans, provides federal grants to support related technology and training, and serves as the catalyst for the AMBER Alert in Indian Country initiative. As Tribal Communities and Nations partner with their states, either in utilizing the state AMBER Alert plan or adopting and operationalizing their own plans, the overarching result is clear: the continued growth and strengthening of the nationwide network of law enforcement, public safety, media, transportation, citizens, and numerous organizations working in partnership to bring endangered, missing, and abducted children safely home.
Building the Navajo Network
Building and maintaining an emergency communications network that would effectively serve the nation’s largest Indian reservation has been a gargantuan undertaking. First among the challenges was the sheer size of the reservation, a geographically diverse region spanning 11 counties in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah; comprising a total 27,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia).
Additionally, without its own plan and procedures, the Navajo Nation would need to contact each AMBER Alert Coordinator in the three adjoining states to provide information for AMBER Alert and IPAWS notifications. “We couldn’t risk any delay that might cause,” Cleveland said. “We had to have our own system.”
Building an emergency alert system that integrated IPAWS took a few years, but thanks to a unique Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Navajo Nation now has the authority to access IPAWS to issue AMBER Alerts. It also has the capability to push out non-emergency alerts (e.g., for COVID-19, traffic, and weather) via radio, television, and instant messaging.
In finding a platform that could not only integrate IPAWS but also provide personalization, Cleveland, his team, and a Navajo Nation task force comprised of law enforcement and public safety officers, as well as civic and community leaders, spent countless hours evaluating 40-plus vendor products for their capabilities and effectiveness. Ultimately, they chose Everbridge, and “so far so good,” Cleveland said.
The Nation’s mass-notification system, approved in December 2018 and launched a year later, is overseen by the Navajo Division of Public Safety (NDPS) and managed by the Navajo Department of Emergency Management (NDEM). To stay on their game, Cleveland and his team participate in monthly meetings with Everbridge and FEMA while also hosting beginner-level webinar training sessions for new Navajo Nation law enforcement officers.
While the idea of future missing and abducted child incidents is never easy to consider, Cleveland and Willie-Nez understand it is inevitable. This is what drives their daily work and never-ending commitment to being prepared to respond – swiftly and effectively. They will be ready for it, they said.
“As a mother, I can’t even imagine how I’d feel if one of my children went missing,” shared Willie-Nez. “When a child’s life is on the line, all of us know we have to get the word out to as many people possible, as quickly as possible.”
When searching for the perpetrator of an abduction, “Anybody can be everywhere,” she said. “That’s why the public has to be our eyes and ears.”
An independently operated mass notification system is well suited to the Navajo Nation due to its vast size and ample resources, but it may not be feasible for most Tribal Nations. Harlan Cleveland and Lavina Willie-Nez of the Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management offer these tips for Tribes working to create a solid communications plan:
- Work with your state’s AMBER Alert Coordinator to build from existing AMBER Alert programs. Any Tribal leaders who are reticent about tapping into state/national resources and expertise “should consider that at the end of the day, it’s not about us, it’s about our children,” Willie-Nez said.
- Learn what criteria your state’s AMBER Alert program needs to ensure your alert goes out quickly and accurately. Also make sure law enforcement, public safety leaders, and community members know what is required so that families can be prepared.
- Assess your technological strengths and weaknesses. Do the cellular or broadband service/wireless transmitters in your community/area need updating?
- Participate in training whenever possible. Ask FEMA to provide an IPAWS tutorial. Also take courses provided by the AMBER Alert in Indian Country (AIIC)/AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) and the National Criminal Justice Training Center. “Both paint a really good picture of what’s required,” Cleveland said.
- Network with knowledgeable sources and attend regional/national conferences.
- Maintain a dynamic social media presence and encourage others to like and share important information. Also stress the importance of opting in for AMBER Alert notifications. “If it were your child, wouldn’t you want everyone to see the AMBER Alert?” Willie-Nez said.
- Be ready for the media to call after an AMBER Alert is issued. They will want a good quality, emailable photo of the child and a flyer, if available.
Check out the FEMA fact sheet, “How Tribal Governments Can Sign Up for Public Alerts and Warnings.”