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LSU NCBRT is bridging communication between the deaf community and emergency responders

The shock of a sudden disaster can create panic in almost any environment. Imagine a scene that includes fire, injured individuals, emotional witnesses, and a terrified crowd fleeing an area. Now imagine that you are in the middle of this environment, but you have no idea what the emergency is. None of the witnesses or emergency responders can communicate with you to let you know what is happening and provide directions for finding safety. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, this feeling of confusion and helplessness has often been the case during emergency situations – until now.

Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. (TDI) is working to remedy this communication breakdown, and National Center for Biomedical Research and Training (NCBRT) is helping them make it happen. The non-profit agency has a mission to bridge the gap between emergency responders and the deaf and hard of hearing community.

NCBRT is quickly becoming known for providing assistance to agencies seeking certification from DHS. Since the center has expertise in what DHS expects from its training partners, NCBRT administrators can help other agencies, like TDI, who are interested in certification.

TDI’s new course, “Emergency Responders and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community: Taking the First Steps to Disaster Preparedness,” teaches emergency responders how to serve this unique consumer group, while simultaneously educating deaf and hard-of-hearing participants in the role of emergency responders.

Neil McDevitt, the national coordinator for the project said, “The course is all about building a bridge between people with hearing losses and their counterparts in the emergency services field and making the emergency information accessible to everyone.”

As a volunteer firefighter in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, McDevitt is one of a handful of emergency responders in the country who are also profoundly deaf. In addition to hands-on fire and rescue experience with the Fire Department of Montgomery Township, he has provided fire safety presentations to deaf children and adults and given nonverbal communication classes to firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians.

“Imagine a world where all emergency information is provided in an ancient language while everyone speaks modern-day English,” said McDevitt. “For deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf blind people in our country, this is the reality we face on a daily basis.”

During breakout sessions and scenario exercises, the two groups learn about each other. The class participants include firefighters, EMS personnel, law enforcement officers, and deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. In the initial hours of the day-long course, the class is divided into two groups, placing emergency responders in a breakout session with a deaf or hard-of-hearing instructor, while the deaf and hard-of-hearing participants are taught by an emergency responder.

Firefighters, EMS personnel, and law enforcement officers learn the challenges of the deaf world and relate these challenges to emergency situations. Participants are taught that background noises such as sirens, vehicles, and even conversations may hinder communication with deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers. During a concurrent session, the deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers are taught by an emergency responder about the specifics involved with emergency situations. They learn that reaching too quickly for a pen and paper to communicate may lead a law enforcement officer to believe an individual is reaching for a weapon. After morning breakout sessions, the two groups come together to solve problems in an emergency scenario exercise.

Course developers piloted the program three times in the winter and spring of 2006, and with the help of NCBRT, TDI was able to prepare for the Department of Homeland Security certification process. Rick Mathews, assistant director for the Research and Development Division at NCBRT, has been working with the group in preparation for certification. “It’s good that we can help this group. We are able to do what we do best, and they can concentrate on the course,” said Mathews.

Besides the obvious benefit to disaster preparedness, NCBRT also has a personal attachment to this group. NCBRT Director Tom Tucker saw the project as a priority from the outset. “My daughter Aimee is deaf, so I understand the differences between the deaf community and the hearing community,” said Tucker. “I first met the leaders of the TDI course in Washington, D.C., at a training partners meeting. I was signing to them from across the room, so we made friends quickly.

“Then, DHS asked us to work together to improve the project. Getting the emergency responder community together with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is an important project. Once they understand each other, they can work better in emergency situations.”

Jennifer Hughes | NCBRT | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2007

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