Alerts & Notifications

Emergency Notification and the Deaf Community

An ongoing concern among emergency managers across the country is how to adequately alert and notify citizens with disabilities. The topic is complicated (too complex

by Rick Wimberly / October 11, 2010
An ongoing concern among emergency managers across the country is how to adequately alert and notify citizens with disabilities. The topic is complicated (too complex for a simple blog post). However, I do want to pass along some insight gained recently in discussions with IPAWS staff and senior leaders of the Georgia Tech Center for Advanced Communications Policy (experts on communications technologies for people with disabilities). This particular insight relates to individuals who are deaf from birth and how their communication requirements may differ.

I have to admit a certain degree of confusion and lack of understanding on this issue. Over the years, we have witnessed members of this community express a desire to have alerts pushed to recipients in video format that would feature an interpreter creating a sign-language version of the message.

In my ignorance, I wondered why text-based methods simply did not suffice (SMS, email, TDD/TTY)--particularly since pushing video to large groups of people has network implications (especially during a crisis) and a practical challenge exists in having the equipment and resources to capture "broadcast quality" video at the local emergency management level.

I've since learned that citizens who are deaf from birth process information differently from others who do not have hearing deficiencies (different even from those who have developed deficiencies over time or as a result of an injury). Sign language itself is more "conceptual" in nature--not a literal translations of all words. And, conceptual interaction typically forms the basis of communication for individuals who did not initially learn to process information through hearing. As such, communications in text form may not carry the same meaning as communications in the conceptual signing form.

Given this, it would certainly be prudent for emergency managers to investigate ways of providing alert messages in sign language forms. How can this be achieved practically? There are a couple of resources worth looking into.

First is a resource named DeafLink. This organization offers sign language interpretation to anyone interested in reaching the deaf community, including government agencies. They provide support for emergency management and first responder agencies through their Accessible Hazard Alert System (AHAS). According to its website: "In minutes after receiving authorized emergency information, Deaf Link produces an 'air ready' alert for broadcast by cable or television stations in sign language, voice and text."

A second interesting resource is Signtel. Signtel is offering a beta application that claims to be able to translate text into sign language automatically in real time. According to its website: "Users can create messages by typing text or using speech recognition. The system translates the message into Sign Language video, which can then be transmitted along with the text and voice message..."

While we do not have first-hand experience with either of these services, they certainly seem worthy of exploration. Whatever the approach, we believe emergency managers should carefully consider ways to enhance their notification programs to ensure alerts and warnings are equally accessible to everyone in the community.

Thanks to Dr. Helena Mitchell, Salimah LaForce, and Frank Lucia of Georgia Tech's Center for Advanced Communication Policy, and to Al Kenyon of FEMA IPAWS for their input.
Best regards,