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Austin Launches ASL Alerting System for the Hard of Hearing

Austin and Travis County, Texas' emergency management offices partnered with Deaf Link, an all-service interpreting agency, to send emergency alerts in American Sign Language.

alert notification on smartphone
Shutterstock/Simone Hogan
The city of Austin and Travis County, Texas, are home to one of the largest deaf and hard-of-hearing populations in the country, and together launched the Accessible Hazard Alert System this month to serve the more than 100,000 locals with disabilities.

The city and county’s emergency management offices partnered with Deaf Link, an all-service interpreting agency, to send emergency alerts in American Sign Language (ASL) with the new system.

The idea for the project really emerged during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and the need was reinforced during a February ice storm.

“As we moved to virtually holding news conferences [during the pandemic], we struggled a little bit with the ASL interpretation of those,” said Bryce Bencivengo, public information and marketing manager for the city of Austin.

“And then there were so many updates happening early on in the pandemic, and we wanted to make sure our most basic information was down into ASL,” Bencivengo said.

The alert system will also be used for other emergency situations, as was the case this week when a storm system threatened the area with severe rain and potential flash flooding. A National Weather Service alert was translated to ASL to alert that segment of the population about the storm.

“I liked what they sent out,” Bencivengo said. “Sometimes the National Weather Service warnings can be a little dry and confusing to the public. They did a nice job of saying it’s a flood watch.”

The city and county would normally push out such warnings through Warn Central Texas, the area emergency alert system. The new system is a separate subscription base and requires subscribers to sign up.

It really became apparent during the pandemic, when everything went virtual, that those who needed ASL translation were going to suffer. Before COVID-19, there was always someone standing to the side providing sign language during press conferences.

“One of the complaints we heard during the winter storm and the Zoom conferences was when you put the ASL interpreter in one of those little Brady Bunch boxes and you’re watching on your phone, it makes the interpreter look super tiny,” Bencivengo said.

That would make it hard to ensure that the ASL interpreter is visible at all times during a press conference and that the interpreter’s body, face, arms and hands are visible at all times, which is a best practice recommended by the National Association of the Deaf in its position statement on communicating during a disaster.

Bencivengo said it will be imperative to get feedback from the public about how the system is working and how subscribers prefer to receive messages. “We’ll see throughout the coming months and years how much we use it and how much it helps the public as we get feedback from them on what is valuable,” he said.

“Just as with any alerting system, we don’t want to overuse it and be the organization that cries wolf.”
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