Public Media, Public Safety: PBS WARN Program

Last Updated by Aaron Silverman | Communications Director | PBS WARN on

PBS' mission statement says that we are a multi-platform media organization. Most people don't realize, however, that PBS and its member stations regularly use our television broadcast to send lifesaving alerts meant only for cellular phones.

PBS WARN is a grant-funded public safety initiative managed by PBS for the benefit of its member stations. Since 2014, every public television station in the country has used PBS WARN to broadcast WEA messages from FEMA; helping to make public television stations lifesaving forces in their communities even for people who might never turn on a television.

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The WEA system was established by an act of congress in 2006 (the WARN Act) as a voluntary system that would allow cellular phone companies to notify their subscribers of imminent threats to life or property. Because of the WARN Act and subsequent FCC rulings, every television station in the country with a Non Commercial Educational license is required to send the same messages from the government, acting as a "hardened, redundant" backup path for the cellular companies' connection to the alerts.

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PBS received a grant from the Department of Commerce in 2010 in order to design and establish this backup path, and to provide stations with hardening - generators and Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) systems – that would allow them to broadcast the emergency messages even if power to the stations went out. 

WEAs have been powerful tools in protecting the public. For example, at least twenty children can attribute their rescues directly to WEA messages since AMBER alerts started going out in 2013. In just one incident in Connecticut, thirty-five people were saved from a tornado because of a WEA message received by a local camp director. 

Since May of 2014, every message that was sent to the cellular phone companies has also been broadcast by every PTV station in the country. Here are a few stories of lives saved by Wireless Emergency Alerts since then. 

  • June 2014: A minivan with three kidnapped toddlers was spotted seconds after an AMBER Alert went out in Yuba City, California. The police rescued the children within minutes. 
  • February 2015: The owner of a bakery in Salt Lake City, Utah received an AMBER alert on her phone and was able to rescue a three-year old girl. 
  • June 2015: a tornado hit rural Michigan at 1:30 AM. This news story features an interview with a man whose family was awakened by a WEA message that allowed them to get to safety.

The PBS WARN system provided backup for each of these alert messages.

Every station should be proud of the part they play in creating this nationwide, always-on backup path that ensures critical information is received when it is needed most. The PBS WARN equipment makes television stations an integral part of the system that saved these and many more lives over the past few years.

The next article in this series will discuss new developments in multilingual emergency alerting. Please email Aaron Silverman (amsilverman@pbs.org) to let me know if you would like to talk about any other ways that PBS and public television stations are helping improve the public safety of their communities. 

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