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
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
"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 &
Another example of the flawed communication system is the following
"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
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
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
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.
Coté, John. "VALLEJO
/ Deaf boy saved from house fire." SFGate. 14 Oct. 2006. 15
Jun. 2011. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/10/14/BAG6OLPMR411.DTL>.
"Emergency Education Program." Deaf & Hard of
Hearing Services. 15 Jun. 2011. <http://www.hsdc.org/Deaf_hardofhearing/emergency>.
"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. <http://www.Deafhh.net/wp/2011/06/02/national-association-of-the-Deaf-monitoring-response-to-recent-natural-disasters/>.
"Two Deaf Boys Found Dead in Ariz. House Fire."
Firehouse.com. 15 Jun. 2011.<http://www.firehouse.com/news/top-headlines/two-Deaf-boys-found-dead-ariz-house-fire>.
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.
"What is a TTY?." AboutTTY.com. 15 Jun.
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.