Crisis preparedness for all

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Gerard Buckley, president of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is proud of the reputation his city has as a welcoming place for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“We call Rochester ‘The Signing City’ because of the many hearing and deaf people that use sign language every day,” Buckley said last week. “We have thousands of deaf people and (NTID) graduates who chose to make Rochester their home. They do it because they want to live in a vibrant community that’s accessible. They want to live in a community where (American Sign Language) is valued, respected, and recognized.”

However, even in a beloved area that is consistently above national per-capita averages of deaf people and recognized nationally for its accessibility, gaps in service still remain.

“We sometimes feel overlooked and excluded as deaf people. Both when things are planned or unplanned, what happens to deaf people tends to be an afterthought,” he added.

His comments came at the Greater Rochester Deaf and Hard of Hearing Emergency Preparedness and Response Services Summit. The event focused on sharing best practices and connecting communities to be prepared in the case of a crisis. It was attended by deaf experts and advocates, policymakers, and representatives of emergency services, including fire, EMS and the sheriff’s office.

Elected officials and summit speakers with Gerard Buckley, far right, president of NTID

For several other speakers who came after Buckley, the feeling of being overlooked during an emergency was all too real. Kevin Bohlin, MJ Grant, Liz Seal, and Matt Webster were all part of a DHOH community affected by a lack of information and structure during the mass shooting at a bar and bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine, last year. Thirteen people were injured and 18 died, including four from the deaf community, who were playing in a cornhole tournament at the bar.

“There wasn’t much information anyways, but the deaf community had even less. We didn’t know who was there, who was able to get out,” said Seal, whose husband Joshua, was one of the deaf victims.

She learned about the shooting first from a friend, then an hour and 15 minutes after the event, she received an active shooter alert. Calls to hospitals did not get through because of the ongoing situation and gaining further information through broadcast news ended up being impossible.

“There was a lot of information gaps or information that wasn’t shared. The community was relying on each other for that information sharing and that needs to be changed,” she said. “We need to have information readily available and at the moment any person listening to a radio might know that information.”

First responders to the scene were also not aware deaf people were involved and lacked interpreters to help communicate to administer life-saving aid or for law enforcement to take statements. After spending the entire night looking for her husband with her mother-in-law, Seal found that hospitals, the survivor shelter, and family reunification center lacked interpreters until much later—in some cases, into the ensuing days when a police manhunt was ongoing.

Additionally, since the shooting required a lockdown, interpreters who volunteered to help and were already known by hospital staff from their help in other emergency events, such as car crashes, were not allowed in.

Video Remote Interpreting systems, which connect a client with an interpreter over video, had to instead be relied on by emergency responders and law enforcement. While VRIs can be useful for short-term or simple communication, their potential lack of familiarity with regional ASL and dependence on an internet connection makes them ill suited for emergency communication.

To make matters worse, the VRIs had to use a shared WiFi source with the rest of the hospital, leading to immense slowdowns and delays in interpretation. Some people had to switch completely to using gestures or written communication.

Bohlin called the VRIs a “Band-Aid at best,” while Grant went even further saying, with the slowdowns and interruptions during that night, they were “worthless.”

“VRIs are not a viable strategy,” she added. “(Survivors) have already gone through a traumatic experience and now they have no way of communicating because there is no interpreting. Natural language is a comfort.”

“Deaf people’s first language is not English, it’s ASL,” Seal said. “My mother-in-law, she’s not fluent, but she can sign. But she was also grieving for her son, knowing that he may have passed. What was already a traumatic experience was made even worse having to relay that information to me.” 

The night of the shooting, the subsequent manhunt, and the aftermath of the tragedy in Lewiston was a series of frenzied days, the Lewiston speakers recalled. Although there was already an emergency procedure plan being developed, progress had been slow.

“People don’t know what they don’t know. And I didn’t know. I didn’t know about emergency response services, what does that look like, what is the aftermath? I didn’t know the FBI or the Red Cross was going to be involved. I didn’t know about the family reunification center. All of these things I had no idea,” said Grant, who runs a small interpreting business and found herself as one of the de facto emergency coordinators in the days afterward.

“I was overwhelmed by a flood of communication and email and all the phone calls that were coming in. From the attorney general’s office, from the media, people were screaming for interpreters, all of that came at me at once,” she continued. “For the next two months, it was a marathon. One that I hadn’t trained for and I’m not a runner. But for those two months, I had to sprint just to keep up with all the need.”

Grant and the other Lewiston speakers agreed that ASL support provider Sorenson Communications, also present at the summit event, saved them by volunteering services and flying in interpreters to the area.

The summit then transitioned to sharing common pitfalls and best practices in emergency situations, which could be utilized in Monroe County. One speaker was Donna Platt, the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for North Carolina’s Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and an NTID graduate.

In her home state, hurricanes are one of the most consistent worries when it comes to emergency events. As coordinator, she works to make sure emergency service workers are aware of what DHOH people require during these events and how best to help.

Part of this is simply understanding what other people experience. Platt described workshops challenging hearing people to participate in activities DHOH people do every day, such as reading lips. Creating a sense of empathy from these exercises has helped improve services, she said.

For DHOH people, haptic feedback or visual cues, such as the cadence and vibration of a weather emergency alert on a cell phone or bed shakers and strobe lights often serve as the best notification, Platt adds.

RIT’s Office of Public Safety was lauded for its approach, which incorporates many of those techniques. For example, vehicles are equipped with a rumble siren, which emits a low-frequency vibration that can warn oncomers even if they cannot hear.

More accurate captioning is a must in terms of improvements across the board. Often, crawlers with information can interfere with clarity and light color font choice can be hard to pick out on a light background. NTID itself is developing new captioning technology using artificial intelligence to type faster and more accurately through a system called C4.

Platt also is a supporter of making ASL emergency announcements standard practice. Since those messages also have captioning and a spoken script, they can be understood by the widest range of people. This does require some prior planning, but she believes creating canned messages with standardized instructions is a completely manageable task.

Although some mass alert calls now include a phone number to repeat the message, which could be useful for VRIs, Platt has found this solution is still lacking in clarity. When asking four different interpreters to listen to and relay information, she said she received four different versions of the message instead. Simply, there is no replacement for direct ASL translations.

“We’re not here to test (emergency services) or criticize them. We’re here to help them when they do meet a deaf person,” Platt said.

“We appreciate the job you are doing, it’s hard, hard work,” Webster added. “We just want to help make it easier for all of us.”

Ultimately, Buckley says, he wants the next step to be forming a task force tackling the gaps that still exist in the county’s crisis response procedures. Public leaders who attended, including County Executive Adam Bello, Rep. Joe Morelle, and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter, spoke supportively about that effort.

For a first step, though, Buckley was extremely encouraged by the event as he thinks one of the primary barriers to improvement is simply lack of familiarity between communities.

“We’re not going to (establish a task force) today, but I want to ensure that we have a path forward,” Buckley said in his opening remarks. “I’ve already noticed many of you from the emergency service providers know one another; you’re a community. The emergency services community and the deaf community don’t know each other. Yet.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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