Where Tradition Fails, Technology Succeeds in Reaching Angelenos Left Behind

For certain segments of the population, things the average person takes for granted — emergency notifications or even calling 911 — pose huge impediments and risks for the hearing- and sight-impaired.

LOS ANGELES — Technology has done a lot to bridge the gap between local governments and citizens, but for the hearing- and sight-impaired, it has not gone far enough in many cases. Imagine the task of notifying the public of an approaching wildfire through the more traditional means of a helicopter and loudspeaker.

While the vast majority of citizens might get the message and react accordingly, a deaf individual might see the helicopter without understanding its context. The same is true of text alerts, which often provide a message with too little context.

For Richard Ray, Americans with Disabilities Act technology access coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, using tech to reach every citizen equally is part of his daily mission. That mission extends to areas most people take for granted, which he discussed during a presentation at the Los Angeles Public Sector CIO Academy* on Feb. 7.

Before the city and county governments of Los Angeles instituted text-to-911 capabilities last December, deaf callers had the option of placing an emergency call through a third-party relay service or making a direct video call.

Ray, who is deaf himself, tested the video call option and found it lacking. In eight video test calls, he waited between four and eight minutes. The national average for a typical 911 call is 10 seconds. 

“I made eight test calls and I died eight times,” Ray joked as an interpreter narrated. “I have one life left, so I am not doing test calls.”

The new text-to-911 system is not just a benefit to the deaf community, but anyone unable to speak in an emergency situation. It’s also a step toward next-gen 911, which Ray explained has four components: data, voice, text and video. The city and county are looking at pushing in this direction in the near future.

When it comes to emergency notifications, Ray said government must also overcome unforeseen issues, like a deaf citizen who registers for emergency alerts using their relay phone number instead of a cellphone number. As the automated alerts go out, calls to relay services are put in the queue, and often disconnect before an operator can even pick up the line. 

The solution, he said, is using technology more effectively and remembering that not all citizens share the same needs.

As for moving forward, Ray and his team are working to make all city documents available to all groups and share “all of the narrative.” Tools like visual document overlays and auditory descriptions are helping to make sense of public documents and the city’s portals.

*Editor's note: The Los Angeles Public Sector CIO Academy is an event hosted by Government Technology.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.