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Emergency Services:

Jacquelyn Combs
June 26, 2011

Emergency Services for the Deaf Community

      Fires, hurricanes, floods, and other emergency situations are problems for a lot of people, but they present a host of additional difficulties for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. In the United States, there are an estimated twenty-eight million Deaf and hard of hearing people ("U.S. Department"). When an emergency situation arises, they are too often among the last to access important information about the nature of events and what to do to alleviate the problem ("National Association"). In this paper, I am going to discuss specific emergency situations that pose a greater threat to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. I am also going to talk about current services that are in place to ameliorate these issues, in addition to suggestions of what else needs to be done.

     Smoke alarms have proven to be a lifesaver for thousands of people each year ("U.S. Department").  Needless to say, the high-pitched sound of an activated smoke alarm is of limited use in alerting a Deaf or hard of hearing person that there might be a problem in his or her residence. This is especially true when that person lives alone, as many prefer to be independent, and, therefore, have no one to wake them up if there is ever a need to evacuate. Moreover, if there is another person in the house, he or she may be hindered by smoke or flames, or it may not be possible to wake the Deaf person in time for both of them to escape danger. As one source said, "Smoke and toxic fumes are nondiscriminating killers," ("U.S. Department").  An example of the need for additional measures to be taken, to ensure the safety of the Deaf and hard of hearing community, is the case of a 2010 Arizona house fire, which claimed the lives of two boys.  A 15-year-old boy escaped to inform deputies that his family was still in the house, and the deputies ran over to find the parents and two of their children safe on the ground outside.  Their two other boys, ages seven and eleven, both of whom were Deaf, were unable to escape and perished in the fire ("Two Deaf").

     Other emergency situations that are more difficult for the Deaf and hard of hearing are hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and other weather-related disasters. They often have difficulty accessing information on weather-related emergencies, such as not hearing warning sirens, not hearing a storm approaching, and warnings via television weather crawls being covered up by closed captioning (Wood & Weisman, 2003). William Kennard, Federal Communications Commission Chairman describes one account of this lack of communication:

"A Deaf Florida resident didn't evacuate her trailer as Hurricane Floyd approached because she was watching a television station that did not flash storm warnings on the screen. Late that night, she awoke to water washing through her trailer and spent the night on the roof to escape flood waters until she was rescued by a helicopter," (Wood & Weisman).

Another example of the flawed communication system is the following account:

"A child-care aide with hearing loss discounted a hearing child's report that the tornado sirens were sounding because the child often played tricks on her, and she had no access to any television tornado warning. The evacuation of the children to a safe place was delayed until another staff person returned to the building and informed the aide about the warning," (Wood & Weisman, 2003).


     Despite the fact that Deaf and hard of hearing people are often at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving emergency warnings, there are solutions to the problems. To address the issue of the obvious ineffectiveness of conventional smoke alarms, those who are not able to hear an activated alarm should utilize alarms that have a vibration device. These can be set up to vibrate beds and pillows and, in apartment complexes, can be connected to the alarms in the common areas of the buildings ("U.S. Department").  Unfortunately, these specialized detection and alarm devices can be pricey, and not everyone who could benefit from them knows that they exist. Thus, both information and access need to be made more readily available ("U.S. Department").

               While there are certain precautions, as described above, that people can take to protect themselves, emergency service providers need to be more proactive in serving the Deaf and hard of hearing community. One simple means of better assisting these people is to make sure they know which residents of their community are Deaf or hard of hearing, and know where they live (Coté, 2006). If a firefighter is on a call, and they see a note next to a particular address saying that they are on their way to a Deaf or hard of hearing home, they will know that they might need to handle the situation differently.

               During various weather-related disasters, many people are warned by sirens or television weather crawls. A Federal Communications Commission ruling that went into effect in 2000 made it mandatory to broadcast emergency information in a visual format any time it is presented in an auditory format. This would help not only the Deaf and hard of hearing community, but also the large number of people who occupy loud places where it is difficult to hear, such as in bars, gyms, and restaurants (Wood & Weisman, 2003).  Because some people use closed captioning while watching television programs, the weather crawls and other emergency warnings need to be displayed somewhere on the screen where they will not be blocked. Moreover, as technology becomes more advanced, information is spread faster then ever, and many places offer e-mail and text warning systems that people should take advantage of ("National Association").

               Finally, one who knows little about Deaf culture or emergency services in general might wonder how a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person goes about getting attention during an emergency in the first place. For this reason, I am going to touch on the TTY.  A TTY is a text telephone, also called a TDD or Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, ("What is").  Communication via these devices involves typing a message, which is then sent through the phone line, and responses show up on a text display.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires 911 centers to accommodate TTY callers. Dispatchers and other emergency service providers should get involved in education and training, such as workshops that include hands on practice with TTY machines, ASL translation, and Deaf Culture classes ("Emergency Education").

               Those who are Deaf and hard of hearing may be at a disadvantage when it comes to finding safety in various emergency situations. It is important then that both the individuals themselves as well as emergency service providers take steps to lessen this disadvantage. As is often the case, education is power, and the more a person knows about Deaf culture, including familiarity with the language, the better he or she is able to serve those who need help.


Works Cited

 Coté, John. "VALLEJO / Deaf boy saved from house fire." SFGate. 14 Oct. 2006. 15 Jun. 2011. <>.

"Emergency Education Program." Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services. 15 Jun. 2011. <>.

"National Association of the Deaf Monitoring Response to Recent Natural Disasters." Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Center, Inc.. 2 Jun. 2011. 15 Jun. 2011. <>.

"Two Deaf Boys Found Dead in Ariz. House Fire." 15 Jun. 2011.<>.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Office of Fire Management Programs. The United States Fire Administration. Fire Risks for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Dec. 1999. 15 Jun. 2011<>.

"What is a TTY?." 15 Jun. 2011. <>.

Wood, Vincent T., and Robert A. Weisman. "A Hole in the Weather Warning System." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 84.2 (2003): 187. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 June 2011.

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